When Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013, he was facing up to 35 years in prison.
Swartz was accused of using a laptop to make unauthorized downloads of more than four million academic articles from the nonprofit journal archive JSTOR. To accomplish this feat, he allegedly hid a laptop inside a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he was not a student) for months, using a bicycle helmet to shield his face from any security cameras.
When he was finally caught, and accused of planning to release the millions of documents for free online, JSTOR asked for the articles back and dropped the matter. To the confusion of some legal experts and activists, MIT and the office of U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz did not.
And so began a sequence of events that Swartz would refer to only as “the bad thing,” and that some believe drove the 26-year-old programmer to kill himself.
The issues at the heart of Swartz’s alleged crime and suicide — overly harsh sentences for computer crimes, open access of federally funded research, suicidal depression — reached heightened awareness online and in the media in the weeks after his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kaffman, found him hanging in their New York apartment. In death, Swartz ignited a national conversation on some complicated issues. In life, he was known for trying to do this every day.
Here’s what has changed — and what has not — in his absence.
Computer Crime Laws
Many of the 13 charges against Swartz stemmed from the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which first became law two years before he was born. In 1986, it was amended for the first of several times, often in ways that strengthened it.
“It looks like the government used the vague wording of those laws to claim that violating an online service’s user agreement or terms of service is a violation of the CFAA and the wire-fraud statute,” Lofgren wrote on Reddit, a website Swartz helped create and where the congresswoman posted an earlier draft of the bill. “Using the law in this way could criminalize many everyday activities and allow for outlandishly severe penalties.”
In June, such a bill was introduced with bipartisan support, but it stalled. One year later, the law has not changed. Even more, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill this month that would actually strengthen the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Early on, Swartz’s family and supporters also attempted to hold individual prosecutors accountable for what they thought were overly harsh penalties. An online petition calling for the resignation of the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, gained nearly 60,000 signatures. A petition calling for the resignation of assistant U.S. attorney Stephen Heymann gained 28,000.
As public anger continued to grow, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, (R-Ca.), chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, began an inquiry into the Justice Department’s handling of the case. Neither attorney was forced to resign.
In March, while testifying in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Attorney General Eric Holder downplayed the possibility of a 35-year sentence and called the case a “good use of prosecutorial discretion.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s role in the case prompted some much-publicized soul-searching on campus.
In an open letter two days after Swart’z death, L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, appointed Hal Abelson, an MIT professor, to head an investigation into how the university handled its response to Swartz using their computer system to download the journal articles.
“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Reif wrote, calling upon “everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.”
Despite saying in February that the inquiry would take just a few weeks, Abelson spent 6 months creating the 180-page report. In the end, the report concluded that there was “no wrongdoing on MIT’s part.”
“MIT did not request that federal charges be brought against Aaron Swartz,” MIT said in a statement. “It was not consulted about its opinion about appropriate charges or punishment, and it did not offer any. MIT was not involved in any plea negotiations, and was never asked — by either the prosecution or the defense — to approve or disapprove of any plea agreement.”
MIT instead, the report argued, took a “position of neutrality,” privately conveying to the prosecutor’s office that Swartz shouldn’t go to prison, but not publicly advocating for any course of action.
In response, Swartz’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, called MIT “reprehensible” and its report a “whitewash.”
“This report claims that MIT was ‘neutral,’ but MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence,” she said. “That’s not neutral.”
While maintaining that MIT did nothing wrong, the report and President Reif said that due to the open-access and computer crime issues at play, MIT did miss “an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership that we pride ourselves on.”
While in Italy in 2008, Swartz wrote his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a two-page declaration lambasting the digitization of academic books and journals for profit. Publicly-funded research should be publicly available, he argued, not hidden behind expensive paywalls. “Information is power,” Swartz wrote. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”
It was with this ideology in mind that he allegedly tried to “free” those millions of journal articles from JSTOR in 2010 and 2011. But Swartz was far from the first or only loud voice advocating for open access, and those supporters have continued to push the issue after his death.
“There is now wide acceptance that open access is here to stay, that publicly funded research ought to be open access” said Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project. “In previous years, the question was still ‘should it be.’ Now the questions are ‘when’ and ‘how.’”
In February the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR) was introduced in both houses of congress. FASTR would require open access to federally funded research from the largest agencies, allowing for only limited embargo times.
This bill, which has bipartisan support, compliments an executive action from the White House that has already been in effect for nearly 11 months, Suber said. The directive to about two dozen federal funding agencies gave them six months to develop open access policies. The agencies submitted drafts of the policies in August, and they are currently under revision.
A handful of more modest bills have also been introduced, including the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act; the Affordable College Textbook Act; and the Public Access to Public Science Act, which Suber called “weak tea.”
“The Whole World”
The issues and causes taken up by Swartz, or highlighted by his death, are numerous.
Swartz famously opposed SOPA and PIPA legislation, and he will be a rallying point for a “day of protest against mass surveillance” in February, sponsored by a variety of groups including Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Demand Progress, an organization he co-founded.
Swartz was also interested in politics, and was, for five months, a congressional intern. On the anniversary of his death, his mentor Lawrence Lessig, the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, began the “New Hampshire Rebellion” — a walk across the primary-happy state to protest political corruption.
“He had wound us all up, pointed us in a million directions, we were all working as hard as we could, moving things forward,” Lessig wrote of Swartz’s many causes.
David Segal, who founded Demand Progress with Swartz, made similar remarks at a February 2013 memorial.
“Aaron wanted everything,” Segal said. “He wanted to change the whole world, and more than anybody else that I’ve known, he stood a chance of actually achieving that.”