Aaron Swartz's suicide: Was he being unfairly targeted?

Reddit co-founder, Internet activist and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, has committed suicide, according to police authorities. His body was found in his New York apartment and he is believed to have hanged himself to death.

Swartz's suicide has sparked a volley of reactions online with many coming out to support and remember him. Swartz was facing criminal charges for stealing more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution service.

In July 2011, Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury of wire fraud, computer fraud and other charges related to allegedly stealing millions of academic articles and journals from a digital archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Notably however,  JSTOR itself did not press charges against him.

Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. He was released on bond. His trial was to start later this year.

Aaron Swartz speaking at the New York Tech Meetup anti-PIPA rally. Image by alecperkins from Flickr.

With his suicide, many have come out to discuss the case, that has been criticised as being unfair and harsh. According to Alex Stamos who was one of the chief witnesses for Aaron's team in the case, Swartz was did not hack JSTOR. He writes in a blogpost titled, The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s "Crime"

Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.

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.

The government provided no evidence that these downloads caused a negative effect on JSTOR or MIT...

You can read the full post here. The point that Stamos is making is that Aaron's actions did not pose a threat to JSTOR and MIT and that he certainly didn't deserve a 35-year-prison sentence. Nor did his actions constitute hacking as the provision to download so many articles was already present in JSTOR.

Aaron's family too has blamed the Prosecution and MIT for his death. In a statement to Ars Technica, they said,

Aaron’s death...is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.

There's another blogpost by the founder of Creative Commons, Lawerence Lessig , who has come out in support of Swartz and has sharply criticised the prosecution. He writes,

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. 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.

What has irked many online activists is that the prosecution made Aaron to sound out like a thief and criminal despite JSTOR not wanting to press charges.

Meanwhile an online petition has started asking President Obama to pardon Swartz posthumously.

Published Date: Jan 13, 2013 01:27 pm | Updated Date: Jan 13, 2013 01:30 pm

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