Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Law Links ~ The Tragic Case of Aaron Swartz


From Boston.com
In July 2011, Swartz, who acknowledged battling depression, was charged in US District Court in Boston with hacking into the archive system JSTOR on MIT’s network during 2010 and downloading more than 4 million articles, some of which were only available for purchase.
Authorities said Swartz planned to distribute the information free on file-sharing websites. At the time, he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Swartz pleaded not guilty Sept. 24.
Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment Friday, according to the statement and the New York Medical ­Examiner’s Office.

Family Statement
. . . Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
12 Jan 2013

From Boston Globe
Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, is ­alternately sad and furious.
“The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk,” Good told me. “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

. . . Marty Weinberg, who took the case over from Good, said he nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time. He said JSTOR signed off on it, but MIT would not.
“There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” Weinberg said. That support did not override institutional interests.

Elliot Peters, the San Francisco lawyer who took the case over from Weinberg last fall, could not persuade prosecutors to drop their demand that Swartz plead guilty to 13 felonies and spend six months in prison. Peters was preparing to go to trial and was confident of prevailing.
But the prospects weighed heavily on Swartz.

“There was such rigidity with the people we were dealing with,” Peters said. “I couldn’t find anyone in that office to talk about proportionality and humanity. It was driven by a desire to turn this into a significant case, so that some prosecutor could put it in his portfolio.”

From Democracy Now Interview with Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, a friend and mentor of Aaron Swartz

Yeah, he was dedicating his life to building a world, a nation at least, but a world that was as idealistic as he was. And he was impatient with us, and he was disappointed with us, with all of us, as we moved through this fight. And he—as he grew impatient, he called on people to do more. And it is incredibly hard for all of us who were close to him to accept the recognition that maybe if we had done more, maybe if we had done more, this wouldn’t have seemed so bleak to him, maybe if we had stopped this prosecution.
I received an email from JSTOR four days before Aaron died, from the president of JSTOR, announcing, celebrating that JSTOR was going to release all of these journal articles to anybody around the world who wanted access—exactly what Aaron was fighting for. And I didn’t have time to send it to Aaron; I was on—I was traveling. But I looked forward to seeing him again—I had just seen him the week before—and celebrating that this is what had happened. So, all of us think there are a thousand things we could have done, a thousand things we could have done, and we have to do, because Aaron Swartz is now an icon, an ideal. He is what we will be fighting for, all of us, for the rest of our lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We spend today’s broadcast remembering the life and work of cyber activist, computer programmer, social justice activist and writer, Aaron Swartz. At the age of 14, he co-developed the Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, web protocol, the key component of much of the web’s entire publishing infrastructure. By the time he was 19, he had co-founded a company that would merge with Reddit, now one of the world’s most popular sites. He also helped develop the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and built the online architecture for the Open Library. Aaron Swartz committed suicide on Friday. He hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.
His death occurred just weeks before he was to go on trial for using computers at MIT—that’s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors moved the case forward. Aaron Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. When the case first came to light, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said, quote, "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what the case against Aaron was? Explain what happened.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: Well, I have to be very careful, because when Aaron was arrested, he came to me, and I—there was a period of time where I acted as his lawyer. So, I know more about the case than I’m able to talk about.

But here’s what was alleged. Aaron was stopped as he left MIT. He had a computer in his possession, which there was tape that indicated that he had connected the computer to a server—to a closet in MIT, and the allegation was he had downloaded a significant portion of JSTOR. Now, JSTOR is a nonprofit website that has been for—since about 1996, has been trying to build an archive of online—giving online access to academic journal articles, you know, like the Harvard Law Review or journal articles from geography from the 1900s. It’s an extraordinary library of information. And the claim was Aaron had downloaded a significant portion of that. And the question, the obvious question that was in everybody’s mind, was: Why? What was he doing this for? And so, the Cambridge police arrested Aaron.

JSTOR said, "We don’t want to prosecute. We don’t want to civilly prosecute. We don’t want you to criminally prosecute." But MIT was not as clear. And the federal government—remember, at the time, there was the Bradley Manning and the WikiLeaks issue going on. The federal government thought it was really important to make—make an example. And so, they brought this incredibly ridiculous prosecution that had multiple—you know, I think it was something like more than—more than a dozen counts claiming felony violations against Aaron, threatening, you know, scores of years in prison. But, you know, it’s not the theoretical claims about what he might have gotten; it was the practical burden that for the last two years, you know, his wealth was bled dry as he had to negotiate to try to finally settle this matter, because the government was not going to stop before he admitted that he was a felon, which I think, you know, in a world where the architects of the financial crisis dine regularly at the White House, it’s ridiculous to think Aaron Swartz was a felon.


. . . LAWRENCE LESSIG: Yeah, Aaron was depressed. He was rationally depressed. You know, he was losing everything, because his government was overreaching in the most ridiculous way to persecute him, not just because of this, but because of what he had done before, liberating government documents that were supposed to be in the public domain. Of course he was depressed. He wasn’t depressed because he had no loving parents—he did have loving parents who did everything they could for him—or because he didn’t have loving friends. Every time you saw Aaron, he was surrounded by five or 10 different people who loved and respected and worked with him. He was depressed because he was increasingly recognizing that the idealism he brought to this fight maybe wasn’t enough. When he saw all of his wealth gone, and he recognized his parents were going to have to mortgage their house so he could afford a lawyer to fight a government that treated him as if he were a 9/11 terrorist, as if what he was doing was threatening the infrastructure of the United States, when he saw that and he recognized how—how incredibly difficult that fight was going to be, of course he was depressed.

Now, you know, I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know whether there was something wrong with him because of—you know, beyond the rational reason he had to be depressed, but I don’t—I don’t—I don’t have patience for people who want to say, "Oh, this was just a crazy person; this was just a person with a psychological problem who killed himself." No. This was somebody—this was somebody who was pushed to the edge by what I think of as a kind of bullying by our government.

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