Aaron Swartz was a little embarrassed.
The man beside him pointed out some of the big names. There was Ken Starr. Alan Greenspan. Jack Valenti, the Hollywood grandee. And Sonny Bono’s widow, Mary, the Congressional ringleader opposing Aaron’s camp.
With a deafening snap, everyone stood at attention. “…Oyez! Oyez Oyez!” the marshal cried. The second snap Aaron discerned as a gavel.
If anyone was wondering how a bushy-haired, unshowered teenager made it inside the nation’s highest court, they needed look no farther than the courtroom floor. All eyes had fallen on the petitioner’s counsel, the “Elvis of cyberlaw,” as the press crowned him.
Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford professor and noted author, had invited Aaron personally.
Two years earlier, Aaron plucked himself from Midwestern obscurity by cold-mailing some of the fledgling web’s most renowned architects. With a knack for networking, and the technical chops to back it up, Aaron worked his way up to Lessig, who offered the mini-hacker work — and that day, a seat.
The morning’s case, Eldred v. Ashcroft, challenged the longevity of restrictions on public works, better known as copyright. Four years prior, for the eleventh time since 1960, Congress had extended copyright terms; now, artists and writers held on to their creations for 75 years after they died.
None of the Justices expressed much fondness for the measure. Aaron couldn’t remember all their names, but the way they fidgeted, swiveled in their chairs, and interrupted one another reminded him of schoolchildren, who “would almost certainly be diagnosed with ADD.”
For people like Aaron and his friends, many of whom camped out on the sidewalk the night before, it felt like a day of reckoning. But in retrospect, this was only one skirmish in “a hopelessly destructive war inspired by the technologies of the internet but reaching far beyond its code,” as Lessig later concluded.
Even before the professor took him on, Aaron was enthralled by the radical notion that information wants to be free. Not the empty slogan, but the idea that the whole promise of the internet — widespread digitization, untrammeled access to code, culture, and the sum total of human knowledge — lay imperiled by walled gardens, impermeable paywalls, and the strengthening tentacles of intellectual property.
But that day, his mentor was doing a lousy job of cutting his opponents down to size.
A week before Aaron hanged himself alone in an apartment building in Brooklyn, Lisa Rein, a former coworker at Creative Commons, the copyright activist organization, found an old letter that Lessig had sent her, something about “looking after our little friend.” Aaron had loaned her some money a few years back. What better time than now, she thought, to pay him back.
“When I think of him in my head, I still have this much younger version of him,” she said.
Rein’s precocious charge made millions by the time he was 19. But now Aaron was bled dry, and out on bail.
A prolific writer, gifted hacker, tireless activist, architect of web standards, coder of copyright licenses, the third employee of Reddit, a vigorous opponent of anti-piracy legislation, and, depending on your politics, a valiant liberator of big data, or its impenitent thief — Aaron faced 13 felony counts for computer fraud.
In the debate over free information, he’d moved from the sidelines to the defendant’s table. When Rein asked how she could help, Aaron just wanted the money.
On Jan. 4, 2010, an MIT. police detective responded to a call from the university’s IT department. For several months now, the techies had been monitoring an unknown entity. Gary Host, he called himself, a hacker’s joke that resolves the username “ghost.” Bulk downloads were the problem — millions of scholarly articles siphoned off the digital library, JSTOR. Short for Journal Storage, the service was founded in 1995 to provide universities with digital access to journals like The American Naturalist, The Journal of Musicology, and The Polish Review.
That year, subscribers from around the world downloaded 74 million articles; Gary Host, in the span of a few months, took in nearly 5 million himself.
It was a game of cat and mouse, and Gary was one elusive Jerry. On Sept. 25, they knocked out his IP address, 18.104.22.168, until the next day 22.214.171.124 was at it again. JSTOR deauthorized the whole building, while MIT barred the laptop’s unique identifier. Nothing stuck. Gary came back on Oct. 8, this time with his sister, Grace Host. Now, JSTOR banned the entire campus.
The ghost laptops got smart, throttling their speeds. Over the last two months of the year, they sucked in 2 million articles — 100 times what the rest of the university read — all undetected.
Alex Stamos, a witness in Aaron’s case, said, “MIT was being generous, and Aaron did abuse their generosity,” but felt a small fine was an appropriate punishment.
By the new year, JSTOR was raising hell, and Mike Halsall, an MIT security analyst, acknowledged that the “user was now not using any of the typical methods to access MITnet to avoid all usual methods of being disabled.”
The university traced ongoing activity to a wiring closet in the basement of Dorrance Hall, known as Building 16 — known as “a prime spot to place an indoor hack.” Inside the closet, which the government later claimed to be locked, hung an unclaimed coat.
Early on the morning of the 4th, Halsall inspected the area, and beneath a cardboard box, he found it: the ghost laptop, cramming files into an external drive. Digital hijinks were one thing, but now it was a “matter of personal safety,” said Saul Tannenbaum, a longtime Cambridge resident who worked in Tufts’ IT department. “You call the cops because network administrators aren’t paid to deal with physical intruders.” University cops, the Cambridge police, and soon the Secret Service assembled at Building 16.
“By the time this thing snowballed out of MIT’s hands, it was gone,” an MIT employee later told The Huffington Post.
Local cops dusted the laptop for fingerprints, while a hidden camera was installed. A few hours later, the suspect was caught on tape, replacing his hard drive. By the time he returned, two days later, the dragnet had identified their man. This time, he seemed wary of discovery, shielding his face with a bicycle helmet. Cambridge’s finest watched it all go down from the station.
Not long after, an officer overtook the bicycler, close to home on Massachusetts Avenue. They must have been staking him out. Blue lights flashing, the officer approached. The suspect dropped his bike and took off on foot. Not long after, Aaron Swartz was in handcuffs.
Two years after his arrest, the charges against Aaron were posthumously dropped. But they were never, in any sense, resolved. The case against Aaron had only continued to mount. At first, according to the Cambridge-based attorney Harvey Silverglate, it was to be a slap on the wrist. But by July, Aaron was indicted on four felony counts, which, in September, were upped in a superseding indictment to 13.
“They made their position very clear. They believed they had to seek prison time and multiple felony convictions in this case,” Elliot Peters, Aaron’s lawyer, said of the prosecution.
When his lawyer told prosecutor Stephen Heymann that Aaron was a suicide risk, Heymann allegedly replied, “Fine, we’ll lock him up.” To many observers, it didn’t add up.
Because JSTOR and MIT had settled privately with Aaron, it came to resemble “a civil claim that some overly aggressive prosecutor is trying to dress up as a federal crime,” wrote the attorney Max Kennerly. Last summer, prosecutors offered a plea bargain of six months, on the condition that Aaron plead guilty to all 13 charges. He said no.
Aaron’s grandfather, William Swartz, was by trade a signmaker. But by the time of his death, he was better known as an advocate for nuclear disarmament.
William contributed generously to an organization called the Pugwash Conferences, endowing in 1979 an annual prize of $50,000 to statesmen like George F. Kennan and Andrei Sakharov.
From his father’s business, and first and middle names, Bob Swartz derived his software company, Mark Williams. Swartz fils manufactured a Unix-like operating system that during the ’80s was beset on many sides. AT&T, the original developer of Unix, had been forbidden from commercializing it until 1983, when the Ma Bell trust was busted. But after that, AT&T could compete with manufacturers like Swartz.
Around the same time, an industrious developer cut a deal with IBM to market new operating system. His names was Bill Gates.
Yet another engineer, Richard Stallman, crafted his own, free, version of Unix.
Those who peddled proprietary software, like Swartz, sought to “divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others,” Stallman charged in his GNU Manifesto.
Free was a tough price to compete with, but it resonated with the Swartz family.
“The notion of trying to do good and make the world a better place suffused the way we looked at things,” Robert Swartz told a reporter. “The notion of not being interested in things, money, acquisitions is the way we looked at the world.”
In 1995, when Aaron turned 9, two things happened: Pugwash was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and his father’s software company was driven out of business, in part by the free software that Stallman and others had released.
At just 13, Aaron shot off unsolicited messages to the international cadre of programmers called the RSS-DEV Working Group. The team included alumni of Apple, Netscape, and O’Reilly Media — grown-ups tackling the significant problem of web syndication.
Nonetheless, Aaron pressed them on openness: “How was the spec developed? Was it done through email discussion between the authors? If so, why did you choose this route, instead of a more public method?”
Open access meant more to Aaron than nebulous culture, reams of documentation, or spools of source code; it meant access to people, people he wanted to know.
Once a computer prodigy, Greenspun saw in Aaron shades of himself, but refracted by generational changes in computing.
“If I was idealistic as a 17-year-old, there just wasn’t much I could do,” Greenspun said of a time when computers were all but inaccessible. For Aaron, who Greenspun remembered as “just unbelievably young,” wide-eyed idealism could be trained through the nascent web. “There’s no technical obstacle to everyone on the planet reading my weblog if I’m a 17-year-old today,” he said.
The year after his visit, Greenspun selected Aaron’s entry, called the Info Network, a sort of Wikipedia predecessor, for the ArsDigita Prize. In addition to receiving cash, Aaron was invited to a two-day seminar with luminaries like web creator Tim Berners-Lee and Hal Abelson, the founding director of Creative Commons (who this month was appointed by MIT to investigate the university’s role in Aaron’s prosecution).
When the Chicago Tribune asked Aaron why his site eschewed money-making opportunities, he said, “That’s not what the internet was made for.”
Even when the money came, Aaron’s attitude only hardened.
By early 2007, Aaron had cashed out on his stake in Reddit, but was camping out in the seedy Cambridge apartment he once shared with its founders. People came over one night, finding nothing in the way of entertainment but an unbaked roll of cookie dough. Luckily, one of his guests had snatched a bottle of wine from a previous party; and not just any bottle, but “Philip Greenspun’s wine,” as they toasted to Aaron’s old friend.
Sometimes, as he did after the Reddit acquisition, Aaron tried his hand at fiction. In one of his stories, a well-heeled entrepreneur, having just closed the sale of his company, strolls through a sun-kissed Harvard Square. When a panhandler accosts him, the newly minted millionaire confuses a request for single dollars for millions of them:
‘How much money do you have?’ I stop walking for a second. The man looks up in my face. ‘I said I got three bucks and how much do you have?’ he repeats. ‘Five,’ I stammer, and then it hits me. I crumble to the ground and start sobbing.
‘I can’t take it,’ I sob. ‘I’m not cut out for this world. I don’t want to be in this world. I don’t want to be this person. I don’t want to be me.’ I curl into a ball and start sobbing.
The man with the Starbucks cup backs away and heads back to his perch. And the rest of the sidewalk traffic just keeps on moving, ignoring the sobbing millionaire, lying in the middle of the street.
Proponents of free software, culture, or information are quick to define the operating word. Free, they say, is like free speech, not free beer.
Put another way, if the price of manumission were set at zero, a slave would still not be free. In that sense, it’s “a matter of liberty, not price,” as Stallman, the godfather of free software, has said.
Stallman came out of a cooperative hacking culture in the 1970s that thrived at MIT. When that community declined in the early 1980s, Stallman left his post to promulgate the GNU project.
In 2002, as he prepared to address the courts, Lessig had already moved to circumvent them. Raised in Pennsylvania steel country, Lessig was another wunderkind, who, by the second grade, could run through the list of presidents backward and forward.
Lessig graduated from Yale Law, clerked for Justice Scalia, and became fascinated with cyberlaw. “It was a place where nobody knows their politics,” he said at the time. In 1997, a federal judge approached Lessig for technical help on the government’s brewing case against Microsoft; but after coming on as special master, Lessig was dismissed before trial, when Microsoft charged he was biased against their proprietary, and bankable, software.
A few years later, he took up the Eldred case and began developing flexible licenses for creators to designate their work as free — a so-called copyleft alternative to copyright. “One of our goals is to lower the cost to give something away, and to make it harder for people to be ambushed,” Lessig said in early 2002.
To help with the technical aspects, he brought on Lisa Rein, a digital librarian. One of her tasks was to enlist a talented programmer to format metadata for the new licenses, and she had a candidate in mind. By the time she made her suggestion, however, the applicant had already been in touch with Lessig. In March, Aaron came aboard.
The position afforded him more opportunities to travel, and at technology conferences he became something of an attraction unto himself, keeping older attendees out of the bar. Aaron spent his downtime warchalking — marking wireless hotspots on sidewalks and street corners. “I was always very proud of unleashing him onto the world,” Rein said. “He was stuck in the Midwest and hoping people would take him seriously.” With Lessig’s imprimatur, they did.
What endeared Aaron to so many was not only his perspicacity, but an easy impressionability. He was everyone’s mentee, “the internet’s little brother,” as the writer Andy Baio has called him.
At a memorial in New York, a former girlfriend, Quinn Norton, spoke of this Zelig-like quality. “Almost everyone who has something they’re passionate about eventually said, well, that was the thing that Aaron always said he wanted to be. So I had the impression he wanted to be a writer; my sociologist friend had the impression he wanted to be a sociologist.”
Especially after his death, said the political scientist Henry Farrell, “a whole bunch of people with very good causes are trying to co-opt him for this or that thing, but what struck me most about Aaron wasn’t the individual cases that he espoused so much as the connections he built.”
In Norton’s words, “Aaron was doomed from the beginning to be just Aaron, to defy these categories.” In a way, Aaron was growing up in the model of a free culture, absorbing, mastering, and repurposing others’ ideas into something all his own.
“Ask any friend of Aaron’s how they met, and he or she will invariably answer something like, ‘online,’ or ‘through the web.’” The writer Rick Perlstein first heard from Aaron in 2005, out of the blue, with an offer to build his website. Perlstein had never met someone before who used a handheld device to fire off quick emails, nowadays a common practice around the dinner table.
In eulogizing his friend, Perlstein recalled two somewhat anomalous moments when Aaron peeked out from behind his computer monitor.
First, the nearsighted programmer adopted contact lenses (“It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces,” he mused), and one other time, when Aaron unplugged from the internet for a full month.
“Dude got to see what it was like outside Plato’s Cave two separate times in his life,” Perlstein marvelled. “How many of us can say that?”
Aaron wrote voluminously, often daily. When he was 8, Aaron made his first Usenet post, an ungrammatical tidbit about a television program he liked. As weblogging picked up steam around the turn of the century, Aaron started his own. “Hello, world,” he wrote one very early morning in 2002. The last, a review of the Batman movies, ends ominously, with the word “suicide.”
The forthright manner Aaron channeled online didn’t always translate to his real-life interactions. “Aaron could be a real pain in the ass to deal with,” said Norton. “He was irreducible, he was difficult.”
Over the years, Cory Doctorow, the Boing Boing editor and a prolific science-fiction author, said Aaron alienated his supporters, none of whom could ever “match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to,” as Doctorow wrote. Aaron was not only cocksure, but idealistic, certain in his high-minded convictions.
“I never really related to his mix of optimism, naieveté, and enthusiasm,” wrote Wes Felter, an early friend from the internet. “I looked down on him and envied him.”
As he had approached the RSS-Dev group, Aaron liked to put tough, public questions to his friends. In one post, Aaron questioned the intentions of Dave Winer, an architect of RSS. Winer fired back, “He’s treated me like crap for years, and child or not, I’m tired of it, and I’m not taking it anymore. When he bites, I’m going to bite back, so watch out Aaron.”
Winer had previously celebrated when Aaron linked up with Jeremiah Rogers, another promising young programmer. “The Bill Gates of 2010 meets his Paul Allen,” Winer cheered.
But by 2007, Rogers felt alienated by Aaron. “He was hyper-intelligent, and I often got offended by the way he acted,” Rogers, now an engineer at Facebook, told me. “He could be a divisive character.” Felter, too, fell out of touch. “I looked at him and I said, when he hits the real world he’s not going to be able to accomplish things, because it’s not enough to have enthusiasm. It actually did work to some extent,” Felter said.
By the time he shipped off to Stanford, Aaron was detached from his youth. Not quite lamenting his “stunning inability to make friends my own age,” Aaron saw in “the kids,” as he called them, fodder for anthropology, not prospective friends. Upperclassmen charged the quad at night, wearing nothing but glow sticks, his peers splashed from fountain to fountain, and Aaron kept up just long enough to report back on his blog. For a while, he developed a crush, a recurring character he called The Girl In Question.
“As is probably clear to you by now, teenage culture is wholly alien to me,” Aaron typed, having reluctantly attended a party to see for himself the dancing undergrads, whose rhythmic contortions reminded him of a screensaver.
It was all a little like Tom Wolfe’s campus chronicle, where in coining the phrase fuck patois — “The fucking freshman in question was standing about 20 fucking feet away” — he revealed his distance from it. That book had just hit the shelves when a Newsweek writer came out to Palo Alto to profile Aaron and his blog, finding it “considerably more nuanced (and less alarming) than Wolfe’s fictional one.” The septuagenarian was having more fun at college.
Home over winter break, depression set in. Next to the brilliant skies and green lawns he’d left behind, the suburbs Aaron found empty and gray. “You know you’re lonely when… you start putting mirrors up just so you’ll have someone to talk to,” he wrote. In the past, he had messed around with death, appointing a virtual executor to look after his servers. Now, he felt truly listless. He barely made it outside. His knees ached.
Aaron dogeared an article by Paul Graham, the entrepreneur, about why nerds are unpopular. Suicide, Graham wrote, “was a constant topic among the smarter kids.” Home again for spring break, Aaron waved good-bye to his toddler cousin, as if from under a red hunting hat: “As we drive away, I think of him and begin to cry. Perhaps he is the one person I truly love.”
In 2005, Graham launched a seed fund for college kids with big ideas. Aaron was one of 277 who applied. He won. One foot out the door, Aaron made some trouble in his last semester at Stanford, writing disparagingly of a girl on his hall, and allegedly frightening a teaching assistant.
At 18, he was Graham’s youngest founder, but also the most prominent. “He writes like he’s 30,” Graham bragged at the time, marveling that Aaron had never rented his own apartment.
With his Danish partner, Aaron worked day and night from the campus on blogging software called Infogami. By summer’s end, Aaron started kicking around for independent funding. He couldn’t find any. So Graham engineered a collaboration between Aaron and two other young entrepreneurs, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. They were engineering a social news site, called Reddit. Aaron, whom Graham had taken in after the summer, moved in with the two young entrepreneurs.
Years later, the team would spar over how many of them founded Reddit. Aaron had taken to calling himself a cofounder, which both Ohanian and Huffman disputed. In an interview he gave after leaving the company, Aaron claimed that he started working with the Reddit team even before Graham’s summer program, which was an outright lie.
Only a month or two into programming, Aaron lost interest in the job. By then, Condé Nast had become interested in acquiring the young company, and on Halloween of 2006, the deal went through. That night, Aaron dressed up as himself: a dot-com millionaire.
Parked by Condé in Wired’s San Francisco office, Aaron grew restless and irascible. Newly wealthy, he was stuck in his first office job. In February, he agreed to resign.
The month before, Aaron had shown up in Boston, living out of the old Reddit apartment. He wrote a story about a suicide victim named Alex that troubled some of his friends, who saw in it more than fiction.
The post so disturbed Ohanian, whose girlfriend had previously attempted suicide, that he called the police. After his mom alerted him, Aaron fled the apartment before he could be detained by police. Years later, he would discuss the “infamous” post with his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, as she called it, so she was “not unaware that he had struggled with mental health in the past,” as she said.
The blog lives on, a undying cry for help:
There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent.
In a now-chilling audio interview from 2001, Aaron anticipated the rise of the two-way, and then the semantic web, when computers would handle, as they do now, “all the sort of mundane tasks in our daily lives.”
The future extended beyond any one fringe cause, to a cosmic struggle, both basic and expansive. “Aaron didn’t care about the freedom of information,” charged Cory Doctorow, whose latest book has an afterword penned by Aaron. “He cared — and I care — about the freedom of people. I don’t give a damn if ‘information wants to be free,’ but I’ll go to the wall for the people who use information to demand their freedom.”
In the years after Eldred, Aaron’s views on intellectual property had narrowed and radicalized. He published a manifesto of his own in 2008, speaking of scientific papers like samizdat, and urging hackers of the world to unite. “There is no justice in following unjust laws,” Aaron wrote. “It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to the private theft of public culture.” It would later be turned against him.
Two months later, an opportunity for action presented itself. Another ally of Kahle and Lessig’s, Carl Malamud, had a long record of obtaining governmental records and putting them online. His Fedflix initiative scanned National Archives video, making them available online like a Netflix for the national government. In 2008, Malamud decided to take aim at Pacer, a government-run database of court records. Though the records are public, at the time, they cost 8 cents a page to download.
Over three weeks in September, Aaron checked in at a government library in Chicago, where Pacer was offering a free trial, running a computer script he’d written. He downloaded 19,856,160 pages of text, or nearly 20% of Pacer’s entire archive. The government promptly discontinued the trial and notified the FBI. Though the court documents technically belong to the public, they were, in the government’s view, “exfiltrated.”
Aaron’s bulk downloading amounted to $1.5 million in theft, by their math, enough for the FBI to commence an investigation. The legal ramifications scared Aaron. “I had this vision of the Feds crashing down the door, taking everything away,” he told a reporter.
He deadbolted his door and called his mother. Obtaining his own FBI file, he read as the feds blundered through their investigation like the Keystone Cops. An agent drove by Aaron’s parents’ house, complaining that the few cars on the street made “continued surveillance difficult to conduct without severely increasing the risk of discovery.”
When agents contacted Aaron directly, he declined to speak; his lawyers had assured him that he’d broken no laws. They also cautioned that angry government officials could be unpredictable.
When the feds, without any proof of real damages, backed off, Aaron’s trepidation dissipated. Interviewed later that year, Aaron then said it was “pretty silly they go after people who use the library to try to get access to public court documents.” But his relief was, in some ways, misplaced.
Whether or not Aaron’s crimes fit the bill, vigilance against cybercrime has heightened dramatically in the past decade. Under the PATRIOT Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2001, the Secret Service was mandated to create a nationwide network of Electronic Crimes Task Forces. Twenty-five such bureaus exist today, including one in Boston, near MIT. Boston also hosts one of the nation’s few dedicated cybercrimes units, which has prosecuted 47 cases in the past four years. Manning, the Wikileaks source — whose records Aaron sought to retrieve in 2011 with a Freedom of Information Act request — will stand trial in June.
Wikileaks has since claimed that Aaron, like Manning, may have been a source, a claim that friends and intimates dispute. Nonetheless, and despite salient differences, their prosecutions have been mentioned in the same breath.
Just how much jurisdiction the government has over the web came to a head last year. “It is one thing to say that the internet must be free; it is something else to say that it must be lawless,” argued Floyd Abrams, a leading First Amendment scholar. “Even the Wild West had sheriffs, and even those who use the internet must obey duly adopted laws.”
Abrams’ clients include the Motion Picture Association, who had joined forces with organizations like the American Bankers Association, Time Warner, and the Elsevier, the publishing house Aaron named in his manifesto.
Their idea of a sheriff was the Department of Justice, and the law of the land, legislation known as SOPA and PIPA, successors to another failed bill called COICA. Though they sound like Swedish sisters, the legislation is a powerful — and, opponents say, oppressive — tool for the intellectual property holders that Lessig once tried to beat back.
Twitter avatars were suddenly replaced with black banners, reading STOP SOPA. Google draped its logo under a black box, while Wikipedia went dark for a day: “Imagine a world without free knowledge,” the site read.
In December, tech industry advocates gathered at the Tumblr headquarters to coordinate efforts. It was the day of SantaCon, when drunk revelers dressed as Saint Nick clog the streets of Greenwich Village. One of the people who joined the powwow was Ohanian, the Reddit founder.
The STOP SOPA gang, he told me, was a “leaderful movement,” a hoped-for victory that could truly claim a thousand fathers. One of them, a familiar face, Ohanian saw in the crowd: his old colleague, Aaron. The two hadn’t spoken since their falling out, and didn’t that day either.
Aaron, in his latest incarnation, was the founder of an internet advocacy group that hoped to play a big part in the SOPA battle. He called the organization Demand Progress.
Back in Cambridge, and then New York, Aaron tried on many hats. “He was one of the few people with a technical background who really understood how politics work,” said Farrell; in a network analysis, he added, Aaron would live at the nexus.
“I don’t think he was a utopianist,” said Matt Stoller, a friend from Washington. “I think that’s why he switched over from open data.”
In the last five years, demand flared up everywhere: When health care came along, Aaron built a site out of Alan Grayson’s office; in the midst of financial reform, Aaron tweeted about the campaign to mint a trillion-dollar coin. The world was on fire, and Aaron responded to every call.
But by then, there was a shadow hanging over him. It was no secret at the Tumblr meeting, when the tech leaders met to discuss SOPA. It had been in the papers about a year before, when Aaron, then under Lessig’s directorship as a fellow at Harvard, began secreting away to his old stomping grounds down the Charles River.
He had been arrested in January, and indicted in July.
It wasn’t something Aaron liked to discuss with friends. “He was very guarded about the case,” said Ben Wikler, who befriended Aaron in 2009, when they shared adjoining offices in Cambridge.
“This wasn’t what he wanted his life to be about,” added Matt Palevsky, a friend through Demand Progress. “It wasn’t about the frivolous case against Aaron Swartz.” The fight was against special interests, Wall Street, SOPA, not for Aaron Swartz.
That spring, after the tech sector had successfully beat back SOPA, Aaron delivered a sort of sermon — acclaimed as the speech of his life, it’s been viewed over 400,000 times — on the free flow of ideas, and those who would restrict them. David Isenberg, the organizer of the talk, recalled asking Aaron if he would address his legal situation. “He said simply, ‘No. No, no,’” Isenberg remembered. “Aaron wanted to talk about the big fights, the fights to make the world a better place.”
Ostensibly about SOPA, the speech is as much a retrospective on the contests that shaped Aaron’s young life, from camping outside the courts before Eldred to taking them on with Pacer. Watching him now, at ease in front of the black curtain, behind round spectacles with his hair grown long, he looks a little like John Lennon, and speaks with the squeaky authority of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Despite what he told Isenberg, he might be addressing his own woes:
There’s a battle going on right now. A battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store, or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful, virtual sit-in, or a violent smashing of shop windows?
Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech, or like the freedom to murder?
Going to trial was more than a principled stance, it was a measure of the gaping distance between the two sides. On the one hand, in the context of similar cases, “the legal charges against Swartz were pretty much legit,” argued Orin Kerr, a leading cybercrime expert. “What happened in the Swartz case happens in lots of federal criminal cases.”
In the eyes of the law, as articulated by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.” Cyberlaw, after all, is about punishing theft, preventing criminals from “obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses,” as the statute reads. Computer fraud, yet another one of the charges, mandates that the stolen goods exceed $5,000, a sum that even before his arrest, Aaron stood accused of crossing tenfold.
As Lessig has written, “The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen,’ we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime.”
In the government’s view, Aaron had purloined a very expensive beer, not free by any stretch of the imagination.
For Aaron, his actions were as simple, and lawful, as freeing speech.
When I asked Richard Stallman about the case, he said, “The whole purpose of prosecuting him was to protect injustice.” Aaron, he went on, “was destroyed by the arrangements made by an evil monopoly to perpetuate itself.”
The idea that knowledge could be put under lock and key was anathema to Aaron, offending his insatiate curiosity.
“It was like some other universe invading his own,” said Ben Wikler. “He found himself in this nightmare where the prosecutor kept upping the ante as opposed to understanding the reality.”
When they spoke about it together, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said she and Aaron both felt he was guiltless.
“What he saw was a crazy system,” she said. “It was an act of disruption, maybe, but in the technical sense it wasn’t an act of civil disobedience, because he wasn’t breaking any laws.”
Kennerly recommended Kafka’s The Trial, and Aaron not only read it, but reviewed the story of the unaccountably accused: “I read it and found it was precisely accurate — every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”
Kafka rarely finished his novels, but Aaron, despite his trial, was getting his life together. Forever terrified of vegetables, he was learning how to cook. In November, he and Stinebrickner-Kauffman hosted an election night party, serving their guests corn muffins. “That was our first big cooking adventure,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman remembered.
“The person who never did the dishes,” as Norton said, had started to clean up after himself. “I think he’d grown up in a lot of ways,” Wikler said. “His kind of online self and offline self merged.”
Aaron’s blogroll, once confessional, had become a one-man revue, touching eclectically on hyperbolic discounting one day, and reviewing the documentary Waiting for Superman the next. Life, in Fitzgerald’s words, may be looked at more successfully from a single window, but Aaron was reconciling himself to a house of glass.
In the few years that Wikler knew him, he said, Aaron settled on six or seven major projects. Still, “he was spending a lot of time reading about management, figuring out how to craft something that he could really stick with for the long term,” Wikler added.
“There was a clear and coherent set of demands coming together,” observed Farrell, who said Aaron was “creating a back-and-forth” between the worlds of politics and technology.
Trailblazers like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg were not only brilliant, but shrewd. At the age of 13, Gates wondered aloud what it would be like to run a Fortune 500 company. At 20, Jobs was already cheating his technical partner out of a few thousand bucks. And when Zuckerberg, at the same age, cut out an initial business partner, he wrote to his attorney: “Is there a way to do this without making it painfully apparent to him that he’s being diluted to 10%?”
At a memorial in New York, Stinebrickner-Kauffman put hard questions to the packed house. “If you’re in the tech sector, why are you there? What do you really believe in? Do you understand what makes the world a bad place, to begin with? Have you ever spent time with and listened to the people your technology is supposed to be helping? Or the people it might be hurting?”
There was no shame in failure, Aaron used to say. But as Stinebrickner-Kauffman warned, “There’s a deep, deep shame in caring more about believing that you’re changing the world than actually changing the world.”
Over the new year, Aaron came down with the flu as his trial loomed. Stinebrickner-Kauffman noticed he was sleeping a lot more than usual, and said she hadn’t been this worried since the summer, when Aaron brooded privately over the plea bargain.
“The case made him much more secretive in a lot of ways,” she said. Friends, for whom Aaron put on a face, avoided the topic after Aaron brushed it off. “Every time we emailed, he always seemed incredibly confident,” said Michael Morisy, who helped Aaron with FOIA requests. “The few times we did talk about the impending charges, he seemed to treat it more like a game, almost like an outside observer to it all.”
On the morning of Jan. 11, Aaron told Stinebrickner-Kauffman he needed to be alone. “I felt I needed to honor that,” she said. “And I really wish I hadn’t.”