On Team Hero

Aaron Swartz–hacker, activist, idealist–committed suicide on Friday. I last saw him at Rootscamp, where I was lucky enough to have a group dinner with him and help him get around town. Given the trial hanging over him at the time, he seemed in remarkably good spirits. I wish I had known the truth, and had the opportunity to help. [1]

I’m glad that eloquent eulogies for Swartz abound (Lessig, Doctorow, Greenwald, official tumblr). There’s an interesting contrast between Greenwald’s remembrance and expert-witness Stamos‘. Greenwald labels Swartz a true hero:

Critically, Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.

Whereas, Stamos reviews Swartz’s alleged crimes and comes to the following conclusion:

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.

I disagree with Stamos — Swartz was trying to take down JSTOR’s business model (of charging outrageous fees to universities for academic articles, many of which should have been in the public domain). It’s only because Swartz was caught before he could complete (what I assume was) the mission, that the actions laid out in the indictment can be construed as merely “inconsiderate”. If he had succeeded in making all of those articles freely available, I think the discussion would be colored differently today.

Especially in light of Swartz’s previous run-in with the FBI over PACER/RECAP, I am firmly in the Swartz-as-hero camp. He must have known that the authorities would go after him over JStor, yet (if the indictment is correct):

  • When MIT blocked his IP address, he circumvented the system to obtain a new one.
  • When MIT then blocked his MAC address, he spoofed a new one.
  • When he decided that his computers were too identifiable on the MIT wireless network, he plugged a machine directly into the network.
  • And even when he guessed there might be video surveillance, he kept trying to download more and more articles (albeit with a bike helmet over his face when he visited the network cluster).

Those are not the actions of someone who is “inconsiderate.” Rather they are manifestations of a person who is driven, with a deep passion and firm principles, to change the world for the better. [2]

And he succeeded. In a somewhat ironic twist, Swartz won the larger battle this week, when JStor began offering full articles for free up to the mostly-reasonable limit of 3 articles per week. (That rate would certainly fit my needs as an ex-academic, assuming the articles I requested were part of the set of journals included in the pilot.) [3]

But this small victory barely dents the sense of grief that we all feel today. The world has lost an inimitable flame that burned brightly, fervently, and too briefly, for the cause of freedom.

Update: Hannah Senesh is much better at the flame imagery than I am. Here’s her take on how one committed person can change the world. It was her last poem before she sacrificed herself to her cause:

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.
Belssed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.


[1] A sentence in Lessig’s post “unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge” makes me think that the legal strategy was for the Internet not to come to Aaron’s aid. Frustrating.

[2] For the record, I agree that a trespassing charge was most appropriate, perhaps with an additional agreement limiting how Swartz would conduct his future mischief.

[3] Undoubtedly, JStor wanted to update its business model on its own terms, rather than have its database dumped on the web. But, to their credit, they did not push for the Feds to bring this case. Clearly the Feds and (according to Swartz’s family) MIT saw the matter in a different light.

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