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A eulogy and a warning…Aaron Swartz

Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 18, 2013


This past week we lost one of the truly important people to skepticism…Aaron Swartz. Many of our skeptic audience have by now heard the name…many might not think of him as a skeptic warrior; however I believe he was.

Aaron started his public life in helping to define the RSS standard, this is the ‘news feed’ protocol that gives you that rolling list of what’s happening on your Facebook page, the CBC news app and of course how you get your latest edition of Radio Free Thinker on iTunes.

Aaron was involved in another project that turned out to be one of those internet goldmines…Reddit. Now, he kinda fell into this good fortune. He spent most of his efforts to make information accessible to all…to free knowledge. He laid down the foundation of the Open Library Project; he was a major force behind the Creative Commons Project.

But where he moved beyond the average progressive was his activism for freedom of the internet…freedom of knowledge. He started Demand Progress…never heard of it? Remember last year when the internet went black? Wikipedia, WordPress, Craigslist, Tumbler, Twitter and other sites ‘shut down’ for the day? That was Aaron at work, not as a terrorist…. but by organizing the online community against legislation that threatened to shut down the internet as we know it.

The most onerous provisions in laws like SOPA and PIPA would have made the ability for sites to act as public forums impossible. He used his status, money and effort to start Demand Progress which acted as a bulwark to this threat. He brought on board the other internet giants and more importantly the common people of the internet community and the bill died…progress won.

He had a strong sense that public information should be public…to this end he first ran afoul of the law when in 2009 Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER claimed documents were stolen. PACER is an electronic public access service to United States federal court documents. It allows users to obtain case and docket information from the United States district courts, courts of appeals, and bankruptcy courts.

PACER was charging 8 cents a page to access this PUBLIC information. This struck many, including Aaron, as being wrong and worse a hindrance to a well-functioning democracy.

Aaron took his money and skills and did something, using his own money, over 1.5 million; he purchased millions of documents from PACER and then hosted them on a site called RECAP which allowed the public to access the documents for free. This annoyed the government which then had the FBI investigate but could find no law broken …progress won again. However, Aaron had now set himself up as an enemy of the state.

In late 2010 Aaron was feeling frustrated that as a non-student ‘guest’ of MIT he was not given access to JSTOR…unless he paid for it. Now many may or may not know that JSTOR is the preeminent warehouse for academic articles, journals and published papers. It is a non-profit but they have created a pay-wall to limit access…largely to academic institutions like UBC et al.

This struck Aaron as wrong because the vast majority of work published was funded by tax dollars…it should be available to everyone. It struck him as wrong because knowledge should be…MUST be available to people anywhere if society and civilization is to progress. He set about to make a difference in the world…again.

Now, Aaron did have access to JSTOR via MIT; MIT provides a number of locations to access JSTOR on campus and there is a culture among academics to ‘lend’ their access to others on the ‘out-side’.

Aaron wanted to repeat what he had done with PACER; that is download as many articles as he could and then publish them via P2P (peer-to-peer) or a Wiki-Leaks type data dump. The goal was to make the knowledge accessible only to the privileged available to all.

I should point out that none of these were ‘classified’ or posed any security risk. This was not a ‘profitable’ endeavour…it is, according to experts and myself, laughable that these articles could have been ‘sold for profit’.

Starting in September 2010, Aaron downloaded articles via public accessible connections. JSTOR noted a higher than normal download rate and attempted to ‘lock out’ Aaron. In this effort to free knowledge, sometime in late December he slipped a laptop into an unlocked network closet and using a script, downloaded articles from JSTOR. He did not break into the building or room; there was no security on the connection. It was akin to popping into the janitor’s closet to grab a glass of water.

I want to reiterate that at no point did he ‘hack into’ or ‘break-into’ the JSTOR computers. He was, ostensibly, like any other MIT student accessing JSTOR; the only difference this time is Aaron downloaded 4 million or so articles.

Again the bulk of the original complaint was that he was downloading too many articles…to quote one report:

“As best as we can tell, he is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the web…[it is like] checking too many books out of the library.”

When JSTOR admins and MIT realized the massive downloads they blocked the PC Aaron was using to access the site. Aaron, being an internet genius, started a cat-and-mouse game where he would alter his PC online appearance, and resume downloading. Ultimately the physical PC was discovered and removed.

It is important to note that this was not a hacker operation…Aaron had no ill intent. The PC he used had no encryption software, there was no attempt to ‘cover his tracks’. Although the PC was in an ‘authorized personal only’ area, the location was selected so as to have a place that his laptop could download for an extended period of time without notice or interference. He NEVER hacked in JSTOR but accessed their online web portal legally.

While annoyed at Aaron’s antics, no harm was really done, although in an attempt to stop the downloads, MIT access to JSTOR was restricted for several days. That said JSTOR declined to press charges. Even MIT was reluctant to prosecute when Aaron agreed to ‘return’ the articles and not publish them online.

Now is when things get ugly and where we as progressive skeptics may take note. Aaron had already angered the government with the PACER incident, thwarted the Federal legislation SOPA and PIPA…the keepers of the internet free movement; so given the opportunity, the prosecutor threw the book at him.

It has emerged that the prosecutor was hoping this high profile case would make a name for himself…that he saw his role not to defend the public good but to make the accused suffer and submit.

Another issue that has arisen is the abuse prosecutor made of the ‘plea-deal’ process. The U.S. Attorney has made it known that Aaron was offered only 6 months in jail plus fines…which he rejected because he did not believe what he did was a crime. The fact he did not actually ‘sell’ or publish the articles means he in fact DID NOT commit any crime.

He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. He faced fines of over a million of dollars and the prosecutor was pushing for a 35 year sentence…well that what’s been reported. I checked it out, and the jail time could have been up to 120…for downloading publicly available academic articles?

Let’s break it down to: wire fraud because he used a fake email address and user name. Computer fraud because he changed his IP address and masked his MAC address. Unlawful accessing a protected computer…there were 5 counts of this dating to September…for login onto the JSTOR website using a fake name.

Let’s put this last one into perspective because it is the foundation of all the other charges. Aaron created a ‘fake’ email and account name to access an online website…how many of us have done this? 95.6%? This is not a crime but a common practice…in fact many security experts recommend using a ‘faux’ ID when ‘registering’ online for anything.

How many years did the fraudsters at AIG or CITI Group get for ILLEGAL bank and trading fraud? None! How many years were the CEOs of HSBC threatened with for money laundering for drug cartels? NONE…equal justice?  One set of rules for the elite (HSBC CEOs) and another for the rest of us (urban youth) and yet a third for those who dare to make a stand against injustice!


Rumour, and yes its only rumour, points to efforts to get someone in the hacker community to testify against Bradley Manning, famous for Wiki Leaks American data dump.

Attempts to plea bargain were stonewalled and it looked like at best Aaron was heading for a multi-million dollar legal battle with the federal government. Think about that last line…to defend himself it would likely cost him a million+ dollars! Aaron had spent most of his ‘win-fall’ from Reddit…it was a bill he could, nor many others, ill afford. Aaron was in, what seemed like, a ‘no-win’ situation…his back was against the wall…

It seems Aaron had other issues… and don’t we all? We talked previously about the subject of bullying leading to suicide…I can seem little difference here.

What can you do when the state becomes the bully?

There is chilling effect to all this and not one that is, I think, unintentional. To our audience, when an opportunity for you to bring to light something you think is in the national interest…the public good but might run afoul of our political leaders, are you going to think twice? Do you want to go through what someone like Aaron went through? That is how they win!

Aaron is dead, and with him a dynamic force for internet freedom and access to knowledge. We currently have our own progressive movement…Idle No More. Although focused on a very different topic, it shares one aspect…at what point do you say that the government of the state is not the government of the people?

There is no happy ending…no inspirational speech…no “light at the end of the tunnel”; life is not like fiction – it is neither neat nor tidy but it is what it is…now what are YOU going to do with it?



2 Responses to “A eulogy and a warning…Aaron Swartz”

  1. jerry said

    First of all I want to say terrific blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to know how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there. I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Thanks!

    • To be fair, the way i write is i get a topic/idea/theme/event in my head. I think about it for days…listen/read what ever i can on the topic. I let it ferment, sometimes i ‘speak’ the blog/article in my head/out loud…then when it ready, i just write. There is no preparation, just “stream of consciousness”. Then the real work begins; i track down references/sources for my ‘assertions’; edit the piece for awkward wording, ambiguous references or analogies and just to make the piece sharper.

      That said, i am very bi-polar most times. That is why i will have weeks of nothing, then days of pages of work.

      The only tip i can give is to write about what you feel strongly about. Everything i write about i have strong feelings for…sometimes it takes a while to find an angle on a story that i feel passionate about, bet every story worth writing have its passion in there somewhere, the art of writing it to be able to see it and breath it to life.

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