Aaron Swartz

Aaron SwartzAaron Swartz killed himself on Friday. For those of you who don’t know, he was a good guy: a technology savant who co-developed RSS when he was still a teenager. But most of all, he was an activist against our broken and evil intellectual property system. At 26, he was facing up to 35 years in jail for “intending” to release copyrighted documents to the public. That’s right: our federal government was threatening him with over twice the maximum federal punishment for rape using a drug.

Certainly, this had something to do with his suicide.

Chris Hayes discussed him on Up today. Check out the video below. But I thought that Dean Baker summed up what I think about all of this:

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.

That’s the liberal administration. Remember that.

Here’s Chris Hayes:

I like what Hayes read from Swartz’s article on depression. I only want to add that Hayes is wrong: there really isn’t any help, as far as I’ve ever been able to tell. But certainly, great stress (like having the entire federal prosecution machine attack you) only makes it worse. Sometimes, tragically, unbearably worse.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz

  1. Was glad to come to FC and look something (someone) up. Soon it should be built up enough to use as a reference site.

  2. Just saw the documentary on Swartz. What is the point of making these journals cost so much to access? If the money was all going back into supporting research, it’d still be a misguided way of funding research, but at least it would make a kind of twisted sense.

    Instead it seems that these online journal services are just another way of making college more expensive. The same as the textbook industry. The last time I was in college, I took courses in a fairly broad range of fields — and holy shit, if the course you’re taking falls into a category of something law or med students might take, batten down the hatches. Those textbooks are way more expensive than most others (and most textbooks are ridiculously expensive, coming out with “new editions” every year just so students can’t use second-hand versions, as the page citations would be all screwed up.)

    What nonsense. What a sad story. And according to interview subjects in the documentary, Swartz was no more beset by depression than anybody else. If anything, what did him in was NOT being depressed — actually having the optimism and energy to think he could pursue goals he cared about deeply without having powerful interests grind his heart into pulp.

    I never want to minimize depression or any means anyone takes to combat it that helps them. But I’m pretty damn sure most of what America diagnoses as “depression” is largely better diagnosed as “living in America.”

    • Well put. I think the depression narrative was very convenient for the government. Of course, Swartz was just a prominent person. The government pushes people to suicide all the time.

      The journal prices are an example of how capitalism largely doesn’t work as advertised. Journals that got big realized that they could use their importance to jack up the price. But it’s worse than even that. When a scientist publishes a paper in a journal she pays to do it. Many journals have tried to claim copyright on the papers and make the distribution of free reprints illegal. Obviously, all this just limits the mark of science. Of course, today, journals aren’t even important. They are just the place that people put work for archive purposes. The real action takes place at conferences and even directly between people in the field.

      The way the government acted in this case shows that the criminal justice system is primarily interested in taking care of the power elite. It’s still not clear to me that Swartz did anything illegal. The feds were warping the law to go after him. But then, that’s about all they do given that they aren’t interested in real crime, because it only hurts nobodies like us.

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