Commenting on Aaron Swartz's Death

There has been an enormous amount written about the suicide of Aaron Swartz. This is primarily a collection of links, starting with those that use his death to talk about the broader issues at play: Orin Kerr, Larry Lessig, Jennifer Granick, Glenn Greenwald, Henry Farrell, danah boyd, Cory Doctorow, James Fallows, Brewster Kahle, Carl Malamud, and Mark Bernstein. Here are obituaries from the New York Times and Economist. Here are articles and essays from, The Huffington Post, Larry Lessig, TechDirt, CNet, and Forbes, mostly about the prosecutor’s statement after the death and the problems with plea bargaining in general. Representative Zoe Lofgren is introducing a bill to prevent this from happening again.

I don’t have anything to add, but enough people have sent me their thoughts via e-mail that I thought it would be good to have a thread on this blog for conversation.

EDITED TO ADD (1/23): Groklaw’s legal analysis. Secret Service involvement.

EDITED TO ADD (1/29): Another.

EDITED TO ADD (2/28): The DoJ has admitted that Aaron Swartz’s prosecution was political.

EDITED TO ADD (3/4): This profile of Aaron Swartz is very good.

Posted on January 23, 2013 at 6:14 AM27 Comments


Joe Bob January 23, 2013 7:13 AM

Cops, prosecutors, and the ilk are in the profession of ‘throwing the first stone’. As they are not without sin, they very often build up an “us vs them” mythology which they support among each other… regardless of how hypocritical their self-righteous delusions are.

It sounds like this is what the prosecutor did in this case. I doubt she was operating independently. She surely had a peer group cheerleading her.

This case was not unlike other cases these days in the computer zone — it is common place. For instance, in their zeal to attack “anonymous” the FBI basically created and controlled the Stratfor hack.

Now that kid is going up for life in prison or something close to it.

This case sounds related.

The kid was a victim of deeply dark and hateful force in government.

Stuart January 23, 2013 7:19 AM

There seems to be a lot on the copyright/IT side – and a lot of avoidance on the actual issue of being depressed enough to commit suicide. I suspect that it’s easier to rage at the intellectual property establishment than it is to deal with the number of bright talented people who kill themselves.

Dave Piscitello January 23, 2013 7:34 AM

How is the “rage” at the IP establishment any different from outrage expressed at any of the circumstances that push men or women first into depression and then to contemplate or commit suicide? Aaron’s are no less valid contributing factors as spousal abuse, stalking, or bullying. I also suspect that few among those who are angry or saddened by Aaron’s death understand depression in general and Aaron’s depression specifically to comment. I don’t think a highly controversial and public debate and an individual’s mental health are as conflated here as you suggest.

ljh January 23, 2013 8:08 AM

unfortunately I have to disagree, not with the content of your post but the closer. I don’t see this as particularly dark and deep or hateful for that matter. It is simply an extension of the FUD policy initiated by and exploited in the Rove/Bush era and embraced by all Gov’t bodies as a survival technique since. I generally assume that if it supposed to be a secret and it becomes public then the real secret lies elsewhere and is much more advanced then we are even willing to believe…neurotic…you bet. there are plenty of coincidences and odd events in the Aaron Swartz suicide to imply other hands are involved.

freeweev January 23, 2013 8:39 AM

This has been goin on since the 80s when they busted hackers at a 2600 meeting out of paranoia and threw the book at them. This guy was getting the same raw deal that weev got except he chose the easy way out instead of doing years in fed prison.

A guy at Dawsons college in montreal a few weeks ago was kicked out for doing something similar but at least he was offered a job instead of an over zealous prosecutor trying to slam him with prison

bob January 23, 2013 8:41 AM

@Dave Piscitello

Because that’s not how depression “works”. Swartz had a long history of depression. Whether or not the government’s shoot-the-messenger approach to issues directly or indirectly pushed him to the point of suicide would be almost impossible to decide even with a failed suicide attempt and a team of psychologists.

Clive Robinson January 23, 2013 8:50 AM

I’ve already commented a couple of times over Aaron and what has happened.

One thing I took exception to was the comments of Prof. Kerr in his two part opus, the second of which he claims that Aaron should not only be prosecuted but as a felon, thereby forever ruining his life and in effect making him an outcast from society in the U.S. (not alowed to vote etc etc).

I personaly think Prof Kerr’s reasoning is distinctly suspect and based on a number of false assumptions. Thus I urge people to read his pieces with care and make up their own minds.

You can find my comment on Prof Kerr here,

Clive Robinson January 23, 2013 9:16 AM

@ bob

Swartz had a long history of depression. Whethe or not the government’s shoot-the-messenger approach to issues directly or indirectly pushed him to the point of suicide would be almost impossible to decide even with a failed suicide attempt and a team of psychologists

You may be unaware that from what has been reported both the State Attorney and her lead prosecuter had actually been told about Aaron’s depression and declining mental state. Both of them decided not to head this and get there own assessment, instead they chose to recklesssly apply more and more preasure, at the very least this was cruel and vindictive behavior and actually may be regarded under international law as a form of torture.

One of the reasons State Attorneys have “discretiion” is to avoid bringing the US justice system into disrepute. I think it can be safely said that the pair of them have achieved the exact opposite. Now for most normal employees bringing their employer into disrepute is significant grounds for dismissal. Technicaly she is an Obama appointee, as State Attorneys are “hired and fired” under the US Presidents discretion. I’m not sure if it’s still up but there was a petition on the Whitehouse site calling for Obama to dismiss her. For those who think that is a little draconian please consider the US is supposadly a democracy, and she had quite wilfully behaved in a reckless fashion. Because at the very least she was trying to “send a message”, thus it is the right of all voting US citizens to “send a message” back that such behaviour is unexceptable not just moral but because it effects US National Security and in turn all citizens of the US.

I will leave others to consider for who’s benifit the message she was sending was for, but as we know from the Fritz Chip etc many supposadly impartial persons who are paid from the US national purse are very far from impartial and willingly help out commerical interests for their own personal gain.

Further a quick google on the State Attorneys name brings up quite a few interesting points that she has considerable bias in whom and how she prosecutes. Basicaly she has a history of going after those least able to defend themselves whilst leaving commercial interests with the same supposed failings well alone. It would also appear she is being groomed for political office to replace one of a number of people whom are for various reasons not likely to either seek or be re-elected due to some of their somewhat interesting activites that many votes have raised an eyebrow or two over.

Nic Watson January 23, 2013 9:25 AM

This case hits home because the victim was a white male computer geek like many of us, but it happens in our legal system every day.

This situation a natural result of the law-and-order political trend here in the U.S. Almost 3% of the population here is in prison or on parole or probation (over 5% for adult males). Part of that is the war on drugs, but that has leaked into the rest of the system, where a 20-year sentence isn’t all that unusual for even white collar crimes.

Poorly-worded, vague laws have always been around. Our only defense is judicious prosecutors and an independent jury. The political pressure to make convictions seems to have removed the former from the equation.

Winter January 23, 2013 9:34 AM

“One of the revealing things about this story, is how little this is being covered in the mainstream news.”

One of the main newspapers in the Netherlands covered it full page in their Saturday opinion issue. The article (in Dutch) is available online.

The title says it all and translates as:
“We need heroes like Aaron Schwartz in our battle for open information”

Piper January 23, 2013 9:59 AM

Any law named after a high-profile victim is a bad law.

If Zoe Lofgren is serious about it, she should step back, think clearly and soberly about it. Definitely read Orin Kerr’s comments.

And, for God’s sake, take Aaron’s name off it.

The Feds January 23, 2013 12:49 PM

You can launder money for a violent drug cartel if you work for a bank and not even get charged (HSBC) but don’t you dare use skill to bypass a paywall and interfere with profits from the intellectual property cartel.

Sofa January 23, 2013 1:52 PM

I see the problem from both sides. The word that comes to my mind is “proportionality” (of response). When people commit suicide it is my belief that falls on them. To do so something had to be wrong, they were mentally ill by definition. Setting that aside, did he break the law? That is a much harder question. If he did then he should be punished but to what degree? If he white-hatted a hole with a proof of concept demonstration then how is he different than any other researcher that turns the theoretical into the practical, a’la l0pht heavy industries, so that vendors/agencies are forced to fix the issue? Was, or is, the government response proportional to the crime? Oddly, stealing a hard drive containing all the documents from the server would have resulted in only a theft charge with a sentence substantially less, why does the network access exponentially change the punishment?

I too struggle for the right response. I passed this post and other similar along to my friends because I appreciate people like Bruce and Jennifer that are as good as the government lawyers and the NSA cryptographers that choose to work outside of the government rather than for it.

atk January 23, 2013 3:27 PM

@ljh: If you think FUD started with Bush/Rove, you’re deeply mistaken. It may be fun to consider them the root of all evil, but I believe it’s better to recognize reality. Obvious examples that quickly spring to mind are McCarthy (McCarthyism/red scare), and the yellow journalism used by early presidents to falsely accuse their opponents.

I’m sure that a quick google search would identify FUD created before the US existed, from Britian, France and every other country. And if you go back through time, I’m sure there was FUD in ancient Greece, ancient China, even back to Mesopotamia (though it may be harder to find references as we go backwards).

FUD has always been around.

Clive Robinson January 23, 2013 5:47 PM

@ atk,

FUD can get you killed…

With regards,

I’m sure there was FUD in ancient Greece

Indeed there was if you look into the events that led to the death of Socrates. Long prior to his trial he had been unfairly associated with the group of thirty who had briefly displaced the democratic process in Athens who had imposed a blood thirsty oligarchy. Further his view that you should question rather than pay blind obedience to those who considered themselves to be in authority was portrayed as corupting the youth of society.

Socrates viewpoint about questioning authority figures arose because one of the oracles had declaired him to be the wisest person in Athens.

Socrates however was firmly of the view that he was anything but wise, and thus chose to investigate by questioning others who were considered by their position to be wise. He found them to be distinctly lacking in wisdom and worse had self deluded themselves into beliving they were wise (a now well recognised human failing in those of at best mediocre abilities).

After considerable thought on the matter Socrates concluded that he was differentiated from the other supposed wise men by the oracle simply because he knew he was not wise and was happy to admit honestly to his lack of wisdom, and it was this that the oracle regarded as a sign of true wisdom.

Unfortunately for Socrates his investigation by questioning others did not endear him to the supposed great and good of Athens who in their pedestrian way sought to bring him down with FUD and false accusation.

Ben January 24, 2013 4:28 AM

@theFeds, HSBC haven’t been charged with laundering money. They’ve been charged with – and settled – charges of having insufficient paperwork to prove that they weren’t laundering money.

Maybe they were, but that hasn’t been proved, nor have official allegations even been made, AFAIK.

Ben January 24, 2013 4:53 AM


I am not an expert on ancient Greece, but there is another view of Socrates.

There are those who argue proto-fascist Socrates was not “unfairly associated with the group of thirty” tyrants, he was very much associated with them, at least as much as – and probably more than – Marx and Engels can be said to be associated with Lenin and Trotsky. The only reason he was still alive at that point was the amnesty which was extended to collaborators. (A considerable part of the trial was taken up by discussing his actions during the rule of the tyrants, which strictly should have been covered by the amnesty.)

Once the tyrants were overthrown, he should have realised that the “wise” course was to shut the f*** up, and live out his remaining years quietly. But, as if to prove he was not wise, he failed to do that. So he was accused of corrupting the youth – which he was arguably doing by continuing to promote the political philosophy of the tyrants.

Amnesties aren’t justice – they are when we forgo justice for the sake of peace. One could argue that Socrates’ punishment was justice catching up with him, if through the wrong door.

Clive Robinson January 24, 2013 5:28 AM

@ Ben,

I am not an expert on ancient Greece, but there is another view of Socrates

That makes two of us, but it would appear that even the experts cannot agree.

There is yet another view point that Socrates deliberatly provoked the situation which then splits into two other views. One that he was to trying to avert the Athenian status slipping further downward (he pointed out what other effective enemies of Athens were doing to become strong). The other that he in effect commited suicide to avoid the pains and uncertainties of old age (mind you he was supposadly 70 at the time of his death).

With regards the thirty tyrants Socrates had chosen unlike many others Athenians not to desert his oath as a citizen of Athens to Athens and thus did not flee from the tyrants. When the tyrants were disposed of it was those that then returned who mainly cast asspertions on those who had remained. As we know from recent conflicts those who chose to stay are often charged with colaboration, even if they did their best to protect those remaining from their oppressors.

We know that Socrates was, in the equivalent of a satirical play called a sophist which was at the time considered a term for a con artist and this was considerably prior to the period of the thirty tyrants. It was also used after his death as an insult to athenian leaders as a measure of their iniquity.

We know he was not a sophist of the meaning of the time, as other more contempary work tends to back up the view that he was actually a stone mason or sculptor by trade and as such was poor but honest.

The problem we have is that the records of the time are not what they could be. Socrates either did not write down his thoughts or his writings have been lost. So the views we have are from his friends and more vociferous detractors, few if any actualy being historians and neither side being a realistic reflection of the man himself.

Ben January 24, 2013 5:53 AM

For the avoidance of doubt – it is very important to the community that amnesties should be observed, whether Socrates or Pinochet. I am not arguing otherwise. Just don’t hold Socrates up as some kind of hero to be emulated.

Winter January 24, 2013 6:46 AM

“Indeed there was if you look into the events that led to the death of Socrates. Long prior to his trial he had been unfairly associated with the group of thirty who had briefly displaced the democratic process in Athens who had imposed a blood thirsty oligarchy.”

The account of Karl Popper was that two of the thirty tyrants were uncles of Plato and former students of Socrates. This rather tight link of Socrates as the teacher of the tyrants was what drove the accusations.

Clive Robinson January 24, 2013 7:16 AM

@ Ben,

Just don’t hold Socrates up as some kind of hero to be emulated

I was not, only that his case was an example of FUD from Greece way back in antiquity.

And as I noted there is to little reliable contempory records to judge him one way or another.

@ Winter,

This rather tight link of Socrates as the teacher of the tyrants was what drove the accusations.

That is how many have and do view it, and we know such human failings still exist and we call it “guilt by association” which has in times past given rise to “Kangaroo Courts”, “Hanging Parties” and other forms of “Mob Rule Justice”. Worse the mentality has been enshrined in law with very bad laws on what might be considered “conspiracy”. And of course in recent times “terrorist legislation” that makes a mockery of free speech and alows those in power to suppress legitimate criticism.

So arguably as in Athens in the time of Socrates we have gone from democracy to rule by tyrants in an oligarchy, ably funded and supported by a plutocracy who do the best to hoodwink the general populous that their view is the only view that matters.

Or more simply “The right of might” with “power purchased cheaply through wealth”, thus not in any way democracy. Which on looking we find was the view of Aryn Rand and certain economists scrabling for the scraps of meat left on the bones tossed from the top table as pitiful reward for performing tricks that those sitting there find entertaining…

Petréa Mitchell January 24, 2013 12:04 PM

Thanks for including that second Orin Kerr post, which I hadn’t seen before. It’s got a point which needs to be made more:

I think it’s important to realize that what happened in the Swartz case happens it lots and lots of federal criminal cases. […] What’s unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That’s not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don’t just complain about the Swartz case. Don’t just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country — mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring.

Petréa Mitchell January 24, 2013 12:56 PM

And on that note, here’s another article, from this week’s Economist, which starts with the Swartz case and the provides some historical and contemporary context on plea bargains.

Looking at the most recent numbers they give, for 2010, approximately 97% of federal criminal cases that year resulted in plea bargains rather than jury verdicts.

Dirk Praet January 24, 2013 6:35 PM

@ Ben

There are those who argue proto-fascist Socrates was …

Ahem. Reducing Socrates to a mere proto-fascist is a bit too simple for me. At the Jesuit High School I spent 6 years of my young life, Plato’s Dialogues (in Greek) were a mandatory part of the curriculum and I believe there was just a bit more to the man than just that. For those less familiar with the history of western philosophy, Plato was a student of Socrates and our best source of information about him as his master never put down anything in words himself.

HSBC haven’t been charged with laundering money. They’ve been charged with – and settled – charges of having insufficient paperwork to prove that they weren’t laundering money

The sort of technicalities that get you off the hook and what big corps are paying their hugely expensive army of lawyers for. But there’s other examples, like UBS settling libor charges for 1.5 billion USD. It is common practice in many judicial systems nowadays to settle charges instead of going through lenghty and expensive trials. Although the advantages are obvious, these sort of practices IMHO pave the way for class justice, where – contrary to less fortunate folks – the rich and powerful can buy their way out of jail. To me, this is vaguely reminiscent of the classic “some pigs are more equal than other pigs” anthem.

On top of that, it would seem that much of the legislation governing the settling of such cases is being pushed and/or written by those parties directly concerned. We had a fine example of that in my home country where certain folks largely responsible for the laws governing the settlement of cases were shown to have ties to the diamond industry and where members of Antwerp courts had been shown a good time by lobbyists.

Any which way you turn it, the fact of the matter remains that to date – and to the best of my knowledge – no single individual or corporation responsible for the financial crisis has either been indicted or convicted. Aaron Swartz neither had friends dining at the White House, nor the resources to pay an army of lawyers or “settle” his case. Too few spoke out for him. That made him an easy target for some overzealous DA’s going for the low-hanging fruit to further their career. Chances are that going after Goldman Sachs would not have ended with Lloyd Blankfein in jail but rather with themselves ruined and/or pending from a tree.

As correctly pointed out by Petréa Mitchell, we are all partially to blame for putting up with what happened to Aaron and many other less known folks in similar positions. Life ain’t fair, but this is what happens when everybody just keeps silent, so let me end with Martin Niemoeller’s famous statement:

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

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