Remembering Aaron Swartz: "The Idealist" examines the context behind his quest for online freedom

Justin Peters's new book, "The Idealist," takes a deeper look at the historical forces that led to the charges against internet pioneer Aaron Swartz.

aaron swartz
Image: Fred Benenson via Wikimedia Commons

In 1999, a computer programmer in Highland Park, Illinois, hatched a plan for a user-generated website called "Info Network." It basically worked like an open encyclopedia—anyone could simply upload information to the site, free for all to view, and users could edit it if they saw something wrong.

It was two years before the launch of Wikipedia. The programmer? A twelve-year-old boy.

Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place. Growing up in a computer-friendly home at the dawn of the internet era, he quickly became proficient in programming and coding and began to see all the possibilities that the online world could offer. The computer prodigy dropped out of North Shore Country Day after 9th grade. Why waste time in organized schooling when there was so much else that could be accomplished online? It became a pattern: Swartz later dropped out of Stanford after feeling discontent with the level of academic rigor. Eventually, he also left a lucrative job in Silicon Valley to pursue a career in activism.

Between Swartz's teenage years and 20s, he spent a decade working on projects like RSS and Creative Commons, co-founding Reddit, and launching a campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act. He was a passionate advocate for keeping information free.

But after Swartz hooked up a laptop to a basement server at MIT and began downloading academic articles in the fall of 2010, he was arrested. It was unclear what Swartz intended to do with the 4.8 million JSTOR pieces. Regardless, in January 2011, he was charged on several counts, including violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and spent the next two years in an intense and drawn-out legal battle with federal prosecutors.

After two years of fighting, the battle ended. Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013. He was 26 years old.

Out today, The Idealist, by Justin Peters, offers a deeper look at Swartz's life, three years after his death. The book, which emerged from Peters's Slate piece, offers a historical framework to his struggle to keep information free. And in it, he attempts to address unanswered questions his first piece raised. How did we get to the point where academic research papers are considered private property, and downloading too many of them is considered a federal crime? And why hasn't anyone been held responsible?

The notion of copyright protection, Peters reminds us, is relatively new. He calls the 19th century a "golden age of free content" in which copyright laws were continually evolving. There wasn't an international copyright law until 1891—British authors like Charles Dickens were being published with no payback to the author, partially in a spirit of trying to educate and enlighten poor Americans. Copyright laws, Peters told me, "have not always been a clear, defined, national benefit."

Swartz believed that information should be free, and was, thus, sitting squarely in the middle of a centuries-old debate over the rights of the author versus the rights of the public. He was one of the first to see how the internet offered a new, exciting landscape, in which to share ideas and knowledge. As Peters told me, Swartz was "correct to realize that information is political, and the way in which it circulates or does not circulate through society, who creates it, who controls it, who is allowed to access it and who is not. It's an inherently political issue."

TechRepublic spoke with Peters to find out what he learned from the experience of writing about Swartz's life.

You wrote that Swartz's allies considered the attack against him to be carried out "with disproportionate zeal." What do you think?

It seems to me in part that the US attorneys were annoyed by who Aaron was or what he represented, sort of a young, smart kid who took shortcuts. I can't presume to know what actually motivated them, but I think the resentment of someone who appears like he thinks he's smarter than everyone and wants to evade locks and bolts and laws and stuff, because he thinks he knows what's best. That's the sort of thing that really can rub a by-the-book person the wrong way. I think it had a lot to do with the ferocity with which the case was pursued.

At Swartz's funeral, his dad said that the government killed him. Do you agree?

I don't think he would have killed himself if he hadn't been under prosecution. I'll leave it at that. Without the case against him, Aaron Swartz would still be alive.

If something similar happened at MIT today, what would happen?

I think they might think a little bit harder about bringing charges, about setting a process in motion that might lead to an indictment against someone.

That said, it would also not surprise me if nothing changed. If tomorrow I were to go over there and try to download documents and get caught, it would not surprise me if I got a similar treatment, because I'm not an MIT affiliate. Frankly, MIT can take the heat. It's very clear that they value their relationships with their institutional partners and the corporate money that allows MIT to exist, more than they value the personal welfare of any one person who is not affiliated with the institute. That I don't think has fundamentally changed.

TechRepublic was unable to reach MIT for a response.

MIT famously remained "neutral" throughout the Swartz case. Do you think they should have taken responsibility?

Yes. I think they should have taken responsibility for being a university, from being an institution of higher learning that should grapple with the political and philosophical implications of the technology they produce. They haven't. They have not stood up to do that, and that's a complete institutional structural failure of the institution. They should be leading on these issues, not just in producing more widgets or developing a new version of Guitar Hero. They should be leading philosophically, because that's what universities are supposed to do.

There is this galling perception in the report that the MIT Independent Committee released a few months after Aaron's death, where they were like, "The institute was not set up to grapple with the open access questions posed by the Swartz case." Really? You weren't? Why? You are the foremost technical institute in the world. If any institution should be set up to grapple with this stuff, it is you. The fact that you're not explains a lot when it comes to their actions or inactions in the Swartz case.

TechRepublic was unable to reach MIT for a response.

What about the prosecutors? How come no one's been held accountable for any of this?

They haven't been held accountable for this because they were doing their jobs. I might not like that that is their job, that prosecuting people and going after people who might not deserve all of the prosecutorial fire power being launched at them, is their job, but it is. The justice system and you as attorneys exist to charge people with crimes and prosecute them for that.

The problem here isn't with Steve Heymann or Carmen Ortiz. It's with the Department of Justice and the American criminal justice system. Heymann and Ortiz are really just avatars for the bigger system.

What is Aaron's legacy? How we will he be remembered?

I'll tell you how I look back on him. I've spent a lot of my life pulling my punches or hedging my bets, taking half measures, so to speak. If there's injustice in the world that I've seen, I'll think, "Oh, that's sad," and then I'll turn the pages of the common scripts. If there have been jobs or opportunities that I've really wanted, stuff that I feel that could change my life, I've been afraid to get them, because changing the way you live and the way you approach the world is terrifying. Basic everyday inertia keeps you in your own patterns, and then you're 85 years old, and you're like, "That was a life, I suppose."

What Aaron's legacy is, to me, is that you always have a choice.

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Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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