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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Aaron Swartz: A Tragic Early Death

Aaron Swartz: A Tragic Early Death

Saturday, 12 January 2013 23:02

The NYT and others have reported on the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz at age 26. Aaron was a computer whiz who made major breakthroughs in software while still in his early teens. I knew Aaron because he e-mailed me with questions about some of my writings. After reading my book The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, he asked me why we hadn't made it available in html. When I told him that no one on my staff had the time, he volunteered to do it himself. We continued to occasionally exchange e-mails and met in person a few times. He clearly was a serious committed person.

I have no special insight into the events surrounding his suicide. He had in the past had problems with depression, but there can be little doubt that he was very troubled by the prosecution hanging over his head. The Justice Department was pressing charges after he had been caught trying to download a huge number of academic articles through the M.I.T. computer system. The point was to make this work freely available to the public at large. While both M.I.T. and JSTOR, the system he was alleged to be hacking, asked to have the charges dropped, the Justice Department insisted on pressing the case, threatening Aaron with a lengthy prison sentence.

It is difficult not to be outraged by this part of the story. Here is an administration that could find nothing to prosecute at the Wall Street banks who enriched themselves by passing on hundreds of billions of dollars of fraudulent mortgages in mortgage backed securities and complex derivative instruments, but found the time and resources to prosecute a young man who wanted to make academic research freely available to the world.

It would be an appropriate tribute to Aaron if his death prompted a re-examination of copyright and patent laws. These laws are clearly acting as an impediment to innovation and progress. If economists had the allegiance to efficiency that they claim, and not just serving the rich and powerful, the profession would be devoting its energies to finding more modern mechanisms for promoting creative work and innovation.

Unfortunately most economists are comfortable with the status quo, regardless of how corrupt it might be. Let's hope that Aaron's tragic death can be an inspiration to revamping intellectual property and making a better world.  


 Addendum: typos fixed from earlier posting, thanks to Robert Salzberg.


Comments (15)Add Comment
written by bobs, January 12, 2013 11:09
It's indeed outrageous that the same government that never did as much as inconvenience the banksters on wall street brought its full force to bear on a depressive 26 year old kid who engaged in civil disobedience by trying to break the jstor racket!

Reminds me of how Turing was treated by his government in the 50s. Obama should be ashamed of himself.
Comments from a year or so ago by Juan Cole
written by Hugh Sansom, January 13, 2013 1:11
University of Michigan Middle East scholar Juan Cole had some comments on the hypocrisy of putting scholarship, often publicly funded scholarship, behind very high paywalls. I did a very quick search for the video clip and was unable to find it, but the argument is very simple. Scholars, at least those in fields where little money is at stake, have obvious reason to make research as widely available as possible — they want their work to get a reading. It's easy to imagine that economists expecting huge payoffs from advising nascent dictators in, say, the former Soviet Union, would want their work kept behind some barrier lest their actual thinking become public or their profits be diluted. But historians? International relations scholars?

@bobs — Good point on Turing, who may have committed suicide also.... Obama should be ashamed, but the kind of people who seek, let alone attain, the status he has are not capable of a great deal of reflection or self-criticism or shame. It's in the nature of being a murderous beast.
written by Chris Engel, January 13, 2013 2:47
Part of the reason why the banksters didn't get any criminal charges is because of the fear of stigmatizing the nation's "talent" (lol, seriously).

Yet the DoJ in its infinite wisdom under Obama has decided that taking a true national talent like Swartz and inflicting pointless "tough love" measures on him would be a worthwhile endeaor.

Meanwhile similar levels of talent are cherished in places like Iran, Russia, China where they understand and harness that kind of unique skill for the national good.

But in the US it's all about tough love, teaching "lessons", and missing the forest entirely for the trees.

That's why we insist on having a system that saddles the youth with bogus drug possession charges and then wonders why they have destroyed dreams and can't come out of a rut.

I've seen too many of my friends get burned and give up essentially because of how society has demonized lifestyles.
Nice Piece in The Nation about Aaron
written by robertsalzberg, January 13, 2013 4:19
Link to Aaron piece. Sorry about previous post
written by robertsalzberg, January 13, 2013 4:23
written by watermelonpunch, January 13, 2013 4:38
Well said. Good points.
Sorry for your loss, and very likely everyone's.
written by f.fursty, January 13, 2013 6:13
The connection to the non-prosecution of criminal bankers is even more intimate than you suggest here. If you look at the bio of Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney who insisted on running with this case, she used to head the economic crimes unit before her promotion. That unit deals with copyright infringement in addition to all kinds of violations like bank fraud, securities fraud, money laundering, etc.

That she thought it was more important to prosecute this kid than to go after the financial industry tells you a great deal about the mentality inside the DOJ.
written by Jennifer, January 13, 2013 8:18
Academics are posting their papers online for free in tribute to Aaron Swartz using hashtag #pdftribute
Aaron Swartz, the Good Cop Who Rejected Legalized Economic Crime
written by Last Mover, January 13, 2013 10:01
Aaron Swartz never advanced to the "good cop" status achieved by fallen but forgiven "bad cop" hackers who eventually become security specialists in respected good cop occupations.

Instead, Swartz went for the jugular when playing bad cop, going after the property itself of those made rich by the nanny state. It was no different than a physical break in of a Big Pharma vault full of overpriced pharmaceuticals with intent to distribute to those dying for lack of them.

For this Swartz was lumped into the same band of thieves as Bernie Madoff, the taboo of committing an economic crime against the rich themselves. Rather than join the rich as a seasoned, reformed hacker to advance the pillage and plunder of legalized economic crime by the real bad cops, Swartz remained true to his good cop status.
written by JSeydl, January 13, 2013 12:33
This is so tragic. I've been reading Aaron's weblog all day. He was such a talented person, who would have changed the world in a big way. Actually, he did change the world in a big way. And hopefully more changes will come of this.
Thanks for your thoughts
written by Daniel, January 14, 2013 7:22
Great post. Can I get your thoughts on my uneducated take going against the status quo? Thanks! http://openyoureducatedeyes.bl...pdate.html
Swartz's "crime"
written by archer, January 14, 2013 7:54
This post gives a sense of how extreme the prosecutorial overreach was:

written by John, January 14, 2013 10:57
How awful. Obama's Justice Department has some serious issues and deserves scorn.
"Justice" seems to work only for the moneyed interests
written by Kelli, January 14, 2013 11:17
The part about the administration continuing its prosecution even after MIT requested that the charges be dropped is indeed infuriating. This reminds me of the story of Dr. Burzunski, hounded for years by the western medical establishment (http://www.examiner.com/articl...ing-cancer). Do something that ticks off one of the "powers that be" and you've got trouble. Yet how do great changes ever happen without such brave individuals??
MIT did NOT ask that charges be dropped
written by Andrew Burday, January 15, 2013 11:29
"both M.I.T. and JSTOR, the system he was alleged to be hacking, asked to have the charges dropped"

According to most accounts, including that from Swartz's family, this is not correct. JSTOR did settle civil charges and ask that the criminal prosecution be dropped. MIT did not. MIT currently has a committee investigating its handling of the case, headed by Computer Science prof Hal Abelson. Commenters seem to believe that this will be a legitimate investigation, not a whitewash. (For the record, I have no real expertise in this case but have been following it pretty carefully in the blogosphere.)

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.