Aaron Swartz, American hero

January 12, 2013

Paul Graham, the founder of angel investing firm Y Combinator, has mentored generations of Silicon Valley whiz kids. In an essay about hackers and the role they've played driving technology forward, he wrote that "hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of Americanness." Those three sentences are a perfect description of one of Graham's mentees in particular: Aaron Swartz. 

Aaron Swartz, right, took his life on Friday. He was 26. (Image from Flickr account CreativeCommoners)
Aaron Swartz, right, took his life on Friday. He was 26. (Image from Flickr account CreativeCommoners)

Swartz was not a patient man. With immense talent and strong passions, he had a tendency to attack problems head-on, defying authority and convention if necessary. For a little more than a decade, this approach produced spectacular results. But on Friday, facing federal charges that could put him in prison for decades, Swartz took his own life. He was 26.

At the age of 14, Swartz became a co-author of the RSS specification, now a widely used method for subscribing to web content. He dropped out of Stanford after a year and became an early member of the team that built the social news site reddit. They sold to Condé Nast in 2006, making him financially independent a few days before his 20th birthday.

Swartz then threw himself into political activism. He had an astonishingly broad range of interests, from health care to political corruption. But Internet freedom and public access to information were two recurring themes in his life and work.

Swartz founded an activist organization called Demand Progress in September 2010 to oppose the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, which was reintroduced the next year as the Stop Online Piracy Act. Throughout 2011, Swartz and his Demand Progress colleagues laid the groundwork for the historic January 2012 Internet protest that killed the legislation that would have brought China-style Internet blacklists to the United States.

Swartz took an aggressive, perhaps even reckless, course in his promotion of public access to information. The federal courts lock public documents behind a paywall on a Web site called PACER. When the judiciary announced a pilot program to provide free PACER access to users at certain public libraries, Swartz saw an opportunity. Using credentials from one of the libraries, he used an automated program to rapidly "scrape" documents from the PACER site. He got more than 2 million before the courts noticed what was happening and shut down the libraries program.

Swartz used a similar tactic to liberate academic articles from the JSTOR database. He logged onto the network of MIT, which has a JSTOR subscription, and began rapidly downloading articles. When MIT cut off access to its wireless network, Swartz snuck into an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly into the campus network.

This last stunt led to his indictment on federal computer hacking charges. All told, the charges against him could have led to decades of prison time. Swartz's trial was scheduled to start in the spring.

Harvard law professor Larry Lessig was a friend and mentor to Swartz. In a Saturday blog post, Lessig reported that the costs of his defense were close to depleting Swartz's financial resources. Lessig is in a position to know; his wife started a legal defense fund for Swartz last September. Lessig says Swartz was "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."

As I said at the time of Swartz's arrest, his actions were foolish and some punishment was probably appropriate. But he probably shouldn't have been the subject of a criminal indictment and he certainly shouldn't have faced felony charges.

"It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan," Graham wrote. "In those countries, people color inside the lines." The article is accompanied by a picture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, prior to the founding of Apple, experimenting with a "blue box," a device that tricks the phone system into allowing free phone calls. Wozniak says he once used a blue box to call the Pope.

Graham reports that while working on the Manhattan Project, the physicist Richard Feynman made a hobby of cracking military safes. Graham said that there was something very American about the fact that American officials didn't throw Feynman in jail for his antics. "It's hard to imagine the authorities having a sense of humor about such things over in Germany at that time," he noted wryly.

I worry that Swartz's prosecution is a sign that America is gradually losing the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world's innovators and misfits. A generation ago, we hailed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a hero. Today, our government throws the book at whistleblowers for leaking much less consequential information.

Our nation's growing humorlessness won't just mean that insubordinate idealists like Swartz lose their freedom or their lives. As our culture becomes steadily less accepting of people with Swartz's irreverant attitude toward authority, we'll all be poorer as a result. Revolutionary new technologies and ideas don't come from people with a reverence for following the rules. They come from iconoclasts like Jobs, Wozniak, and Swartz. It's a bad idea to lock them up and throw away the key.

Timothy B. Lee blogs at Forbes and covers tech policy for Ars Technica. For more on Swartz, his web site, which includes many of his writings, is here. A statement from his family is here.

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