Aaron Swartz’s Father: My Son Was ‘Killed by the Government’

The Internet grasps for blame after the senseless and tragic death of one of its most brilliant activists for informational freedom.

Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz had a genius for making the world a more-informed place; he faced 35 years in prison for sharing a trove of academic documents. (Photo: Noah Berger/Reuters)

Jan 16, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Matt Fleischer is a TakePart contributor who was awarded a Fund for Investigative Journalism grant for his series “Dangerous Jails.”

Funeral services were held Tuesday for Aaron Swartz—the 26-year-old co-founder of Reddit and an ardent Internet-freedom advocate. It was, by all accounts, a politically charged affair.

“Aaron did not commit suicide,” his father said before 200 mourners gathered at the Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. “The government killed him. Someone who made the world a better place was pushed to his death by the government.”

It has been nearly a week since Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, but the controversy surrounding his death has only grown—most notably the sentiment expressed by his father: That government overreach drove Swartz to his death by pursuing inflated charges against him.

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Of course, it’s impossible to know what motivates someone to take their own life, but there’s no denying Swartz was under enormous stress. At the time of his suicide, he was facing a possible 35-year prison sentence for allegedly illegally using Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers to hack into the academic database JSTOR and publish its archives of journal articles for free public consumption.

Two days after the 26-year-old’s death, the government dropped the case against him—a case that many felt was trumped up from the start. Computer security expert Alex Stamosho, who testified as an expert witness in Swartz’s case, noted that Swartz did not hack the JSTOR site, because anyone on MIT’s network had open access. Nor did he illegally download, because JSTOR’s website lacked any provisos or protections against using computer programs to speedily download mass troves of documents.

Stamosho told BoingBoing:

Aaron did nothing to cover his tracks or hide his activity, as evidenced by his very verbose bash_history, his uncleared browser history and lack of any encryption of the laptop he used to download these files. Changing one’s MAC address (which the government inaccurately identified as equivalent to a car’s VIN number) or putting a mailinator email address into a captured portal are not crimes. If they were, you could arrest half of the people who have ever used airport wifi.

Nor did Swartz attempt to profit off these documents once they were in his possession. He was taking an ideological stand for the freedom of information—many of the articles in JSTOR’s archives were commissioned at taxpayer expense. In fact, detaining them behind a paywall could very well be illegal.

“The offenses that Swartz was accused of were not motivated by profit, nor did they involve actual hacking. Federal prosecutors could and should have shown restraint and focused their limited resources investigating other, more serious computer hacking crimes.”

“The offenses that Swartz was accused of were not motivated by profit,” Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst with the Speech, Privacy and Technology Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, tells TakePart, “nor did they involve actual hacking. Federal prosecutors could and should have shown restraint in their case against Swartz, and [should have] instead focused their limited resources investigating other, more serious computer hacking crimes.”

Perhaps motivated less by their target’s criminal intent and more by his fame—Swartz was prime headline bait, widely known for co-inventing the RSS feed at age 14—prosecutors went after Swartz full bore, charging him with 13 counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, despite the fact that both JSTOR and MIT refused to press charges, and despite being notified by Swartz’s attorney over a year ago that Swartz was a suicide risk.

Since that time, federal prosecutors turned down multiple plea deals offered by Swartz’s lawyers to reduce prison time. One would have had Swartz pay $1 million in fines; the value of the material he downloaded was estimated to be no more than $50,000.

“From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way,” writes Harvard Law professor and friend of Swartz, Lawrence Lessig. ‘The “property’ Aaron had ‘stolen,’ we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’— with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.”

It should be noted that though it went after Swartz for sharing academic articles with the world, the government has yet to make a similarly aggressive push against the financial industry players who blew up the global economy in 2008.

Did the government go too far in its prosecution of Aaron Swartz. Explain your yes or no in COMMENTS.