Aaron Swartz and a Slower Road to Open Access

Aaron Swartz (CC BY)
All day I've been awash in articles and postings about Aaron Swartz's death. If you haven't heard of Aaron Swartz until now, you're probably not alone. Too often we only learn about great and interesting people after they're gone.

If you're subscribed to this blog -- or any blog -- you're benefiting from Aaron's work. At the age of 14, Aaron helped create the original specification for RSS, the code that makes things like Google Reader and podcasting work. This blog is also licensed with a Creative Commons license, and Aaron helped with some of the code that makes CC licenses machine-readable. Aaron was also a pioneer blogger, a co-creator of Reddit, Markdown designer, Wikipedia editor, and more. But perhaps most importantly, and now tragically, Aaron was passionate about the freedom of information. Open access to research is something I've written about before (e.g., "Open Access Publishing in Mathematics Education" and "The Publication Paradox"), and Aaron's passing serves as a reminder that I should be doing even more to expose the results of academic research to the wider public.

A little backstory: Aaron's "hacktivism" got the attention of the FBI in 2009 when he downloaded 18 million public legal documents which were then posted to the web. While the documents themselves were public, the government website typically charged 8 cents per page as an access fee -- fees that add up to tens of millions of dollars annually for the federal judiciary. Aaron had worked around the paywall by installing a Perl script on a computer in a public library that was exempt from the fees. The script didn't really "hack" in an illegal way, but it made the gathering of documents faster than Aaron could accomplish clicking around with the mouse. Okay, a lot faster. Aaron was investigated, but no charges were made.

Larry Lessig and a young Aaron Swartz (CC BY by Rich Gibson)
In January of 2011 Aaron found himself in a similar situation. By planting a laptop in a utility closet at MIT, he used a set of scripts to download over 4 million academic articles from JSTOR. Unlike the prior incident, many of those articles weren't in the public domain. Prosecutors alleged that Aaron intended to release all the articles to the public, a conclusion they may have reached after reading Aaron's Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Perhaps Aaron was only going to release the JSTOR content that was in the public domain, which JSTOR did themselves in September 2011. Although Aaron returned the articles and JSTOR and MIT backed down from the case, federal prosecutors pushed on. He was eventually charged with 13 felonies, ranging from wire fraud, computer fraud, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. The indictment said Aaron stole and did thousands of dollars worth of damage; David Segal of Demand Progress (which Aaron founded) said "it's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

Aaron was facing a million-dollar trial which, if he lost and received the maximum penalties, might have sent him to prison for 35 years. For an activist prone to bouts of severe depression, this must have been very difficult to face. We can only speculate all the reasons Aaron decided to take his own life, but Aaron's family and partner blame the overreach of the justice system for his death.

Despite my advocacy for access to academic research, I can't quite see myself carrying out Aaron's actions. I tend to agree with Larry Lessig, who commented on Aaron's case in July of 2011:
Nonetheless, if the facts are true, even if the law is not clear, I, of course, believe the behavior is ethically wrong. I am a big supporter of changing the law. As my repeated injunctions against illegal file sharing attest, however, I am not a believer in breaking bad laws. I am not even convinced that laws that protect entities like JSTOR are bad. And even if sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate, even then the disobedient disobeys the law and accepts the punishment.
My individual ability to change laws is limited, but I try to help the cause by informing others of open access issues, taking pledges like The Cost of Knowledge, and making (admittedly small) monetary contributions to organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, Wikimedia, the Free Software Foundation, and Rootstrikers.

My ability to help make information publicly available, however, is less limited. The express purpose of my "Research You Should Know" (RYSK) series is to unlock some of the knowledge that I find in academic publications. As much as I'd like to just copy and paste big chunks of articles, I have a better-than-average knowledge of copyright and fair use that keeps me from doing so. Instead, I take the slow road, summarizing articles and putting things in my own words. I have some ideas for how to scale this effort, but it would take the help of others and I don't think the time and conditions are right just yet. So, for now, I'll try to keep doing what Aaron Swartz wanted to do, only I'll do it one summarized article at a time.

Related Articles and Quotes

(The list will be updated as I read more)

Aaron's family and partner grieve:
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more. ("Official Statement from the Family and Partner of Aaron Swartz")
Cory Doctorow eulogized Aaron on BoingBoing:
Aaron had powerful, deeply felt ideals, but he was also always an impressionable young man, someone who often found himself moved by new passions. He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to.

This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors. And it's a testament to Aaron's intellect, heart, and friendship that he was always forgiven for this. Many of us "grown ups" in Aaron's life have, over the years, sat down to talk about this, and about our protective feelings for him, and to check in with one another and make sure that no one was too stung by Aaron's disappointment in us. I think we all knew that, whatever the disappointment that Aaron expressed about us, it also reflected a disappointment in himself and the world. (RIP, Aaron Swartz)
Larry Lessig, expressing his anger at the prosecution for Aaron's trial, laments what we lost:
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you. ("Prosecutor as bully")
Alex Stamos, Aaron's expert witness in his upcoming trial, said:
If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence. ("The Truth about Aaron Swartz's "Crime"")
Quinn Norton, a friend and former lover wrote a heart-wrenching post on her blog, including:
He loved my daughter so much it filled the room like a mist. He was transported playing with her, and she bored right into his heart. In his darkest moments, which I couldn’t reach him, Ada could still touch him, even if only for a moment. And when he was in the light, my god. I couldn’t keep up with either of them. I would hang back and watch them spring and play and laugh, and be so grateful for them both. ("My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved")
Tim Berners-Lee expressed himself with a poem:
Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
parents all,
we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.
Peter Eckersley writes for the Electric Frontier Foundation:
Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron's act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree. ("Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an extraordinary hacker and activist")
Brewster Khale, founder of the Internet Archive, writes:
If there is a sin in the open world it is locking up the public domain. Aaron took selfless action.

When he was downloading a large number of old journal articles, he was arrested at MIT. I was shocked by this. When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, we might be a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional. Despite many of us supporting the lawyers for Aaron, he was still hounded by prosecutors. ("Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies")
Rick Perlstein at The Nation writes:
I do remember, though, the time he told me the story about when he decided to quit college at Stanford. Imagine a college professor offhandedly saying the reason United States fought the Vietnam War was anti-communism, and imagine this freshman—Aaron—vociferously nailing the poor prof to the wall (was this the first day of class? maybe) by citing an infamous March 24, 1965 memo published in the Pentagon Papers stating that only 20 percent of the reason America was in Vietnam was"to keep SVN (and then adjacent) territory from Chinese hands" and that 70 percent of the reason was "To avoid a humiliating defeat." ("Aaron Swartz")
 Jason Hoyt of PeerJ and formerly of Mendeley, writes how Aaron's case led him to creat PeerJ:
Something had to be done. I wanted to turn Aaron’s technically illegal, but moral, act into something that could not be so easily thwarted by incumbent publishers, agendas or governments. Over the next few months I let that desire build up inside, until one day the answer came in the Fall of 2011. ("Aaron Swartz found dead, but lives on with Open Access")
Doc Searls writes on his blog:
We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make. ("Losing Aaron Swartz")
Jeff Jarvis, reflecting on Aaron's life, is rethinking the value of content itself:
And Aaron Swartz has taught me that content must not be the end game for knowledge. Why does knowledge become an article in a journal—or that which fills a book or a publication—except for people to use it? And only when they use it does content become the tool it should be. Not using knowledge is an offense to it. If it cannot fly free beyond the confines of content, knowledge cannot reach its full value through collaboration, correction, inspiration, and use. ("Learning the true value of content from Aaron Swartz")
Dan Gillmor says we should save some of our anger over Aaron's death for activism:
Shame on all of us, and shame on me, at least in this way: When Aaron was indicted, I didn’t do nearly enough to help. Some, like Larry Lessig, tried hard. Most of us, if we did anything, tweeted our outrage, sent emails of moral support, and went on with our lives.

It’s too late for Aaron, but not for the rest of us. ("Remember Aaron Swartz by working for open society and against government abuses")
A statement about Aaron's death by JSTOR:
We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011. ("Aaron Swartz")
Declan McCullagh explored some of the details of Aaron's case on Google+:
Perhaps Aaron should have been punished for trespassing, which he did do if the DOJ has its facts right. But last fall the Feds instead slapped him with a superseding indictment featuring 13 felony counts that would mean a worst-case scenario of $4M in fines and possible life in prison (I think we can safely say that 50+ years in prison for someone in their late 20s is life)
Peter Suber, Director of the Harvard Open Access Project, writes on Google+:
In September 2008, I criticized Aaron <http://goo.gl/kaczl> for recommending illegal tactics in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto <http://goo.gl/HKxjd>. But that didn't stop us from meeting in Cambridge (post-manifesto, pre-arrest) for a friendly coffee and catch-up. If my public criticism was a break, it didn't feel like one. We had a very enjoyable, very intense, very long conversation about our home town, open access, my repository project, and a few other geeky common interests. When he was arrested in July 2011 for mass-downloading JSTOR articles from MIT <http://goo.gl/pPkLC>, and carrying out some of the steps he urged in his manifesto, I had nothing new to say <http://goo.gl/DvYHL>. I could not join those who praised his action, and I didn't want to pile on by repeating a criticism I'd already made public. I was sad that this whip-smart, forward-thinking guy took that turn and now faced prison. I'm sad now for a much bigger reason.
Alex Howard's Storify story:  http://storify.com/digiphile/the-internet-mourns-the-death-of-aaron-swartz

Mathew Ingram's collection of web reactions: http://gigaom.com/2013/01/12/the-web-responds-to-the-death-of-hacker-activist-aaron-swartz/

Remembrance site from Aaron's family and partner: Remember Aaron Swartz

A 2007 interview with Aaron Swartz: http://blogoscoped.com/archive/2007-05-07-n78.html

The New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html

(January 16th: Even more stories added below)

JSTOR's press release about Aaron's case from July 19, 2011, which clearly stated "It was the government's decision whether to to prosecute, not JSTOR's.": http://about.jstor.org/news/jstor-statement-misuse-incident-and-criminal-case

A well-written 2011 account of Aaron from The Chronicle of Higher Education: http://chronicle.com/article/Rogue-Downloaders-Arrest/128439/

Jonathan Eisen's collection of Aaron Swartz news stories: http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com/2013/01/rip-aaron-swartz-collection-of-news.html

Tim Lee writes in the Washington Post Wonkblog:
I worry that Swartz’s prosecution is a sign that America is gradually losing the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world’s innovators and misfits. A generation ago, we hailed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a hero. Today, our government throws the book at whistleblowers for leaking much less consequential information.

Our nation’s growing humorlessness won’t just mean that insubordinate idealists like Swartz lose their freedom or their lives. As our culture becomes steadily less accepting of people with Swartz’s irreverant attitude toward authority, we’ll all be poorer as a result. Revolutionary new technologies and ideas don’t come from people with a reverence for following the rules. They come from iconoclasts like Jobs, Wozniak, and Swartz. It’s a bad idea to lock them up and throw away the key. ("Aaron Swartz, American Hero")
Glenn Greenwald writes on The Guardian:
He could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status, prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn't an example of heroism; it's the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It's the attribute our country has been most lacking. ("The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz")
Micah Sifry writes at TechPresident:
If coders are the unacknowledged legislators of our new digital age, then Aaron was our Thomas Paine--an alpha geek who didn't use his skills just to get more people to click on ads, but tried to figure out how to change the system at the deepest levels available to him. He accomplished much in his 26 years, but he had so much more promise. ("Democratic Promise: Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013")
Ethan Zuckerman wrote, "I'm so sorry for Aaron, and sorry about Aaron.": http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2013/01/12/goodbye-aaron/

David Weinberger writes on his blog:
The mainstream media know that their non-technical audience will hear the term “hacker” in its black hat sense. We need to work against this, not only for the sake of Aaron’s memory, but so that his work is celebrated, encouraged, and continued. ("Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.")
Audrey Watters wrote at her blog, "I scribbled a tear-stained note yesterday as I thought of all we've lost: 'Revolutionaries burn at a heat that is often not sustainable for the human heart.'"

NPR's story with Larry Lessig: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/13/169264447/at-a-young-age-aaron-swartz-did-a-lifetime-of-work

A solid update from the NYT, "A Data Crusader, a Defendant and Now, a Cause"

Steven Musil at CNET documents #pdftribute: http://news.cnet.com/8301-1023_3-57563701-93/researchers-honor-swartzs-memory-with-pdf-protest/

danah boyd's touching thoughts reflected on a more complex Aaron:
There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor. I adored Aaron because he was an emotional whirlwind – a cranky bastard and a manic savant. Our conversations had an ethereal sense to them and he pushed me hard to think through complex issues as we debated. He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt. Especially the people he loved the most. He saw himself as an amateur sociologist because he was enamored with how people worked and we argued over the need for rigor, the need for formal training. He had no patience for people who were intellectually slower than him and he failed to appreciate what could be gained by a university setting. Instead, he wanted to mainline books and live in the world of the mind. ("processing the loss of Aaron Swartz")
A letter from MIT's president, L. Rafael Reif, announcing an internal investigation led by Hal Abelson: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2013/letter-on-death-of-aaron-swartz.html

The Verge reports about MIT's investigation and hacked website: http://www.theverge.com/2013/1/13/3873352/mit-announces-internal-investigation-into-its-role-in-aaron-swartz

Derek Willis writes, "I hugely admired him for the clarity he had, and the desire to live out his ideals. We need people like that to remind us that what may seem impossible is not.": http://dwillis.net/post/40483840271/on-aaron-swartz

Stuart Shieber writes at The Occasional Pamphlet, comparing the zealotry in prosecuting Aaron to that of Alan Turing: http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/pamphlet/2013/01/13/aaron-swartzs-legacy/

For reasons I'm not sure I understand, the investigation of Aaron involved the Secret Service: http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/01/13/two-days-before-cambridge-cops-arrested-aaron-swartz-secret-service-took-over-the-investigation/

Larry Lessig's appearance on Democracy Now: http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/14/an_incredible_soul_lawrence_lessig_remembers

A special report on Wikipedia's The Signpost: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2013-01-14/Special_report

Coverage from Inside Higher Ed: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/14/academe-reacts-aaron-swartzs-suicide

A post on the Open Knowledge Foundation Blog: http://blog.okfn.org/2013/01/14/goodbye-aaron-swartz-and-long-live-your-legacy/

Law professor Tim Wu writes in The New Yorker:
The act was harmless—not in the sense of hypothetical damages or the circular logic of deterrence theory (that’s lawyerly logic), but in John Stuart Mill’s sense, meaning that there was no actual physical harm, nor actual economic harm. The leak was found and plugged; JSTOR suffered no actual economic loss. It did not press charges. Like a pie in the face, Swartz’s act was annoying to its victim, but of no lasting consequence.

In this sense, Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge. ("How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz -- And Us")
With no one left to prosecute, the US government dropped the charges against Aaron: http://boingboing.net/2013/01/14/doj-drops-charges-against-aaro.html

James Allworth writes about the lack of prosecutorial proportionality at the Harvard Business Review:
It seems you can get away with laundering money for the drug cartels, so long as you've been generous with the those responsible for appointing district attorneys; or better yet, if your industry has paid to undo all the regulation that prevents you from getting too big to fail. Similarly, when your lobby has been helping Congress draft the laws that govern food, drugs, and cosmetics, you can make sure that the federal sentencing guidelines are only six months should you breach the responsible corporate officer doctrine. This in turn means you can inject unsafe cement into people's spines with relative impunity (apparently, those in the healthcare industry were actually surprised when the officers were sentenced to jail, even if it was for only a few months. One of the convicted executives went so far as to ask the judge to delay the beginning of his sentence until after the holidays). But woe betide you if, in the name of openness and sharing human knowledge, you decide to download academic journals. Because that sounds a lot like piracy — and we all know how much has been spent to stamp that scourge out. ("Aaron Swart's "Crime" and the Business of Breaking the Law")
An excellent longer read from Matt Stoller talks about Aaron's political activity at Naked Capitalism:
Aaron knew life would always be unfair, but that was no reason not to try to make society better. He had no illusions about power but maintained hope for our society if, I suppose, not always for himself. This is a very difficult way to approach the world, but it’s why he was so heroic in how he acted. I want people to understand that Aaron sought not open information systems, but justice. Aaron believed passionately in the scientific method as a guide for organizing our society, and in that open-minded but powerful critique, he was a technocratic liberal. His leanings sometimes moved him towards more radical postures because he recognized that our governing institutions had become malevolent, but he was not an anarchist.


As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. ("Aaron Swartz's Politics")
The Aaron Swartz Collection at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/aaronsw

Aaron was remembered by Michael Morisy of MuckRock, a site he helped in making Freedom of Information requests: https://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2013/jan/14/aaron-swartz-1986-2013/

The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator uploads JSTOR downloads (which I do not plan to use, as I'd rather rely on means of doing this I'm confident are legal): http://aaronsw.archiveteam.org/

Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC, writes:
These are, of course, top-level strategies that represent scores of individual actions that must be taken, regularly, by a critical mass of our community.  We’re operating under no illusions - we’ve all known from the get-go that there is no shortcut to implementing the full vision of Open Access.  For the past 8 years, our strategy at SPARC has been to move forward, putting one foot in front of the other, in a steady, inexorable progression towards our end goal.  To me, Aaron’s death doesn’t change this. It just makes me want to reaffirm my commitment to Open Access, pick up the ball, and run like hell to get there faster. ("Honoring an "Open" Activist by Taking Action")
Thank you, Anonymous, for helping keep the Westboro Baptist Church away from Aaron's funeral: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/national/2013/01/anonymous-westboro-baptist-church-aaron-swartz-funeral/61036/

A thread started by Dave Winer: http://threads2.scripting.com/2013/january/aaronSwartz

An 2009 email email exchange between Aaron and Ronaldo Lemos of Creative Commons Brasil: http://www.fastcompany.com/3004769/my-email-exchange-aaron-swartz-shows-original-thinker

"Look at Yourself Objectively," written by Aaron in August of 2012: http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/semmelweis