The death of Aaron Swartz

Many of you already know that Aaron Swartz, an online activist, committed suicide earlier this week. I didn’t know much about him, but now I’ve learned two things.

One, he was a victim of depression. I’ve never experienced this personally — at worst I can say I’ve been sad and stressed at time — but let’s be clear about something: depression is something altogether different. Swartz wrote about his depression, and got across a little bit about what it actually feels like. This is good communication.

Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.

At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.

Two, I’m outraged at the criminal abuse by the justice system that exacerbated his problems. The man was hounded to death, threatened with long prison terms by MIT and JSTOR, the journal archive service.

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.

You might be wondering what awful crime he committed that justified arresting him and confronting him with a 50 year prison sentence: he downloaded scientific research articles and then made them available to others (Wait…apparently, he didn’t even share them, but just downloaded them via MIT’s protocols). Uh-oh. I’ve done this…just not on the scale of Swartz’s efforts. Swartz was committed to Open Access.

This is the problem: not that Swartz opened the door to scientific research, but that we’re laboring under an antiquated system of scientific information storage that privileges profit-making over open access to the results of publicly-funded research.


  1. Rabid says

    FYI, from what I understand, JSTOR were not part of the hounding. They dropped all civil claims they might have had against him back in 2011 and responded to Aaron’s actions (and subsequent actions of his supporters) by making a large batch of papers freely available; something they claim was on the works anyway, but events led them to accelerate their plans.

  2. says

    Yesterday I read this poignant eulogy by his friend. It paints a picture of a troubled young genius with his heart in the right place; it is simultaneously a damning indictment of our “justice” system and miserable track record at mental health intervention. Although it sure doesn’t seem so when it strikes, depression is a very treatable mental illness.

    Sincere condolences to Aaron’s friends and family. The world has lost a truly remarkable young person.

  3. Beatrice says

    He was my age.
    I was unaware of the case against him, but reading now about his depression and the persecution he faced makes me cry.
    Condolences to his friends and family.

  4. says

    PZ, thank you for posting about this.

    It’s critically important that Americans talk frankly about depression in particular and mental health in general. Sadly, I am seeing many commenters in many places focus only on Swartz’s struggle with depression. At best, they seem incapable of acknowledging the political aspect of this case and are fecklessly pleading for others to not “politicize” his death. At worst, they engage in straight-up ableism about people with psych conditions and spread FUD about what he actually did at MIT. I have spotted a few of the latter who I would bet are being paid to do just that.

    There’s good commentary by Larry Lessig, Glenn Greenwald, Rick Perlstein, and Scott Lemieux on Swartz’s suicide.

  5. Who Cares says

    The thing about this is that what he did wasn’t a crime. It was allowed by the contract between MIT and JSTOR. Yes he did use a loophole. JSTOR acknowledged that and dropped anything against him. MIT instead of closing the loophole went after Swartz to get even (which allowed the US attorney to keep pursuing him) since he managed to bypass their blocking of his guest access by just placing a computer in the nearest closet and attaching it to the network.

  6. Rick Sumner says


    Swartz’ piece on who writes Wikipedia was a simple and brilliant exposition on the process. I’d call Wikipedia the greatest accomplishment of my lifetime, and Swartz’ piece epitomizes why I’d say so.

    It’s a tragedy.

  7. alexanderz says

    The problem is not just the scientific information, but the entire Intellectual Property system. From SWAT raids in New Zealand to simple things like preventing people from owning the stuff they buy, it’s quickly becoming a major problem worldwide.

  8. Nepenthe says


    It’s funny. I’m now an old-timer on the wiki, but that article was written before I’d even made a few IP stumbles. I’d never even read it. We lose our history so quickly. But that’s a discussion for another thread.

    In the light of the Swartz’s devotion to open-access, I encourage anyone who wants to to leave condolences to do so at the ‘pedia. It would be more fitting if it weren’t just the insiders toasting his name.

  9. says

    Meanwhile, the executives and managers at HSBC who knowingly aided and abetted billions of dollars of criminal and terrorist money laundering haven’t even been charged, even though certain culprits have been positively identified by the authorities. The reason? HSBC is now not only too big to fail, it’s too big to be subject to the law.

  10. brazenlucidity says

    Depression almost killed me a year and a half ago. I feel so very sorry for this young man. What a senseless waste.

  11. iname says

    I wish I could say I didn’t understand how he felt. Trying to fight to change the things in my life I can no longer accept, only to have a single stray thought knock everything down. You don’t even notice it at first. Then you start to see nobody else seems to have the same problem, regardless of whether or not they do. Why is it that everyone else can just do what is destroying you from the inside? How they they find it so easy? It’s nothing to them. Yet no matter how hard you try you can’t find the answer.

    Nothing can distract you. Movies, music, tv, books, even my own writng serves to reinforce the hopelessness. And yet sitting there doing nothing only allows you to further dwell on the problem. Loved one’s words of reassurance ring hollow and meaningless, or even cruelly oblvious. Finally you just lay in bed hoping for the oblivion of sleep. Laying there for days without food or water. Knowing it’ll never change. That this is it. Wanting it to end, but knowing that ending it would only hurt the ones you love.

    And then it’s gone. You get up and start to put things back together as best you can.

  12. Karen Locke says

    I’m in tears. Such a brilliant young man, so much lost… ultimately to depression, a condition I also combat daily. I do the meds; but my experience is that they work when things are going well, not so much when things aren’t going well. When things are not going well, we need support — lots of it — and the very fabric of depression leads us to not ask for it.

    RIP, Aaron.

  13. Michael Zeora says

    I never knew Aaron Swartz or even his name until after his death. Sad though, I’d like to think someone like him would be an awesome person to know. Progressive, Friendily, Kind, Smart. I like to have friends like that.

    It’s sad that depression is one of those issues that still even though it’s well known is still looked down on, that it’s still killing people, that at it’s best feels like everything is tinted in grey-sadness and at it’s worst is a bleak tunnel that we can’t even see the light in front or behind us.

    On the case of the justice system it’s cases like this that makes things come into stark relief for me. Not just for this one section of law either but so many others. From minor drug offenses in front of a judge to even having any type of trial by jury. Prosecutors are ruthless when they want to be and Defense Lawyers are sometimes little more than crooks in nice suits.

    It pains me to see a member of my generation, who was such a brilliant man, be snuffed out by the double whammy of his internal termoil and the external wrath of an overzealous prosecuter.

    May his memory live on here on the vast wide Internet and in the hearts and minds of who knew him best.

  14. Leanchoilia says

    So sad to hear about another suicide. This was part of why I had to take an internet break last night. Hugs to everyone who is dealing with depression. I wish I could do something more personal than just type the word “hugs.”

  15. Armored Scrum Object says

    It’s not just our distribution of scientific information that’s antiquated. Copyright law was designed for 18th-century technology, when casual copying wasn’t a thing and printing presses were what needed regulation, and over the years clumsily hacked to deal with radio/TV and home taping. Today, millions of RSS aggregators silently make copies while their users are asleep (thanks in part to Aaron’s efforts). Regulating our current situation with copyright law makes about as much sense as regulating automobile traffic with railroad law. We’d need pretty radical reforms just to get the policy to being bad; right now it’s absurd.

    @irisvanderpluym #3:

    Lack of intervention and availability is a problem, but it also doesn’t help that treatment itself often sucks too. Depression is “highly treatable” in the sense that for most cases of depression, there is a mix of treatments that will substantially reduce symptoms. Actually finding that mix and learning to deal with its limitations and side effects can be a months-long project, and getting/staying on top of a new project is not the sort of thing that one can reasonably demand from a depressed person.

  16. Nepenthe says

    getting/staying on top of a new project is not the sort of thing that one can reasonably demand from a depressed person.

    I’ve often bitterly noted the hoops that the psych industry expects me to jump through in order to have them provide their services (endless intake appointments, 350 item psychological tests, 15 page medical history worksheets, rescheduling, having to drive over an hour to get to a place with available practitioners, etc. etc.) and thought that perhaps they just don’t want to deal with people who are too depressed to function, but not depressed enough to be hospitalized. We’re probably not big enough money makers or something.

  17. tonysnark says

    You can go for years feeling you are just weak. Feeling like you are a fraud. After all, who doesn’t hate their job, or get stressed out by their life? Everyone says “I’ve been feeling depressed” at some time in their life. No, they haven’t. This is something I have recently learned. It’s got to the point where I know, it’s quite obvious in fact, that nobody normally feels this way. No-one could get on with their life normally feeling like this. I am claiming Employment Support Allowance, and they recently made me go to an appointment to prove I had a medical problem preventing me from working. I had a huge anxiety attack in the railway station and got on the wrong train going in the wrong direction. Now I have to prove I have a reasonable excuse for not turning up. This is exactly why my doctor signed me off work – to stop things like this from happening! Looking back I can see plainly now how depression has ruined my life. I have spent all my time running away from feeling as if I was having my soul torn out. I can’t go on like this. I am on the maximum dose of Mirtazapine. I am trying cognitive behavioral therapy this year. This is as much as I have been able to organize – I have huge problems initiating and maintaining any course of action. If it doesn’t work I don’t know how I can go on.

  18. pascale68 says

    Thanks for posting this. This is so incredibly sad. I am horrified that my alma mater acted in such a way.

    @Orac – More crazy stuff from Mike Adams. I love that he feels the need to say that he (Adams) is not suicidal, in case “they” come after him next. How arrogant that he would put himself in the same class as Aaron Swartz. And then he tells everyone to get armed so they can protect themselves from these evil forces. ughhhhhhh

  19. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    I am horrified that my alma mater acted in such a way.

    You might want to let them know.

  20. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    Perhaps we need an “I am Aaron Swartz” movement: mass, and massive, sharing of any research papers we have access to. At any rate, this determines me to do something to carry on his work; it’s a cause I’ve long favoured, but to my shame have not acted to further.

  21. teejaykay says

    As a person who uses JSTOR for ‘iz studies and combats depression daily (it can be even one harsh comment that will throw you off the cliff and ponder suicide), my heart’s broken. My brain on the other hand, is disillusioned. Information is ammunition, and everyone should have some brain ammo, for crying out loud.

  22. says

    I was wondering about the development of conspiracy theories.

    For myself, I think the prospects that it was an accident and not suicide might be the more likely alternative than the more exotic theories.

    Also, an analogy to the case of Kent Hovind comes to mind; though Kent Hovind is currently alive and well and residing in a federal prison somewhere….claiming the Government was out to get him for crimes and other offenses he did not commit, for being an “activist” against rules he doesn’t think apply to him, and for believing that “nothing is more than a few thousand years old”.

    The Swartz Defense on behalf of Kent Hovind began before the death of Swartz.

    I suspect that, as in the Swartz case, Hovind apologists will lay any evil that befalls Hovind, including a premature death, at the feet of federal investigators and prosecutors who hounded him for years and then locked him away. They may be even more aggressive in using the defense for Kent’s wife who went along with Kent’s schemes over the years and has suffered the consequences thereof.

    What do you think; do you think the analogy works?

  23. Armored Scrum Object says


    What do you think; do you think the analogy works?

    No. The argument against the charges can be summarized quite straightforwardly: Swartz’s did not violate anti-hacking or anti-wire-fraud laws because he didn’t hack into anything and didn’t defraud anyone. Hovind’s defense, on the other hand, was a veritable Gish Gallop of tax protester bullshit like pleading “subornation of false muster” (apparently a bizarre conspiracy theorist confabulation of civil and military law) and claiming that his property can’t be taxed because it’s owned by God. There’s no comparison.

  24. timanthony says

    Instead of making a donation or attending a wake, do what he would have wanted you to do:

    Keep up the good fight against all this copyright enforcement BS. In some ways, the harm done to those who fall fall of these laws seems about as great as the entire accrued benefit of them to everyone – even without including this recent.tragedy.

    Governments everywhere, but especially in the US, are over-reacting and over-reaching. This prompts the question: Exactly WHAT is the purpose of the US Constitution, again, please?

  25. nightshadequeen says


    Please, not now.

    It sucks that MIT, DOJ, and depression tag-teamed aaronsw like this; please don’t bring up that scumbag Hovind now.

  26. nightshadequeen says

    Christ, it just gets worse.

    Attempt to copy laptop RAM

    The government’s filing attempts to justify an attempt that the FBI made to copy the active memory (RAM) of running laptop, without a search warrant.

    The government argues that the RAM of Swartz’s computer might provide “decryption passwords,” and that the computer might be impossible to search later, even with a warrant.

    As such, the government says, “exigent circumstances” justified their attempt to copy the laptop’s RAM.

    Nonetheless, they failed to do so — after opening the laptop they were presented with a logon screen which defeated their attempt to copy the RAM.

  27. nightshadequeen says

    Looks like anon left a little signature:

    In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz, November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013, Requiescat in pace.
    A brief message from Anonymous.

    Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing — an ideal that we should all support.

    Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.

    Our wishes

    We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
    We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
    We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
    We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.

    For in the end, we will not be judged according to what we give, but according to what we keep to ourselves.

    Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.


    Who was Aaron Swartz? A hero in the SOPA/PIPA campaign, Reddit cofounder, RSS, Demand Progress, Avaaz, etc…:

    Aaron Swartz’s funeral is on Tuesday. Here are details:

    Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of #Aaron Swartz


    Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

    Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

    There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

    That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

    “I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

    Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

    Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

    But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

    Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

    There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

    We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

    With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

    Aaron Swartz

    July 2008, Eremo, Italy


    You were the best of us; may you yet bring out the best in us.

    -Anonymous, Jan 13, 2013.


    (Postscript: We tender apologies to the administrators at MIT for this temporary use of their websites. We understand that it is a time of soul-searching for all those within this great institution as much — perhaps for some involved even more so — than it is for the greater internet community. We do not consign blame or responsibility upon MIT for what has happened, but call for all those feel heavy-hearted in their proximity to this awful loss to acknowledge instead the responsibility they have — that we all have — to build and safeguard a future that would make Aaron proud, and honour the ideals and dedication that burnt so brightly within him by embodying them in thought and word and action. Original frontpage)

  28. Akira MacKenzie says

    I can empathize with how Mr. Swartz felt. Depression (along with anxiety, panic attacks, manic phases, and possibly ADHD) has plagued me most of my life and has been a major contributor to my present, miserable existence. While I’ve certainly thought about killing myself at times, I’ve never actually attempted it. Still, there are stretches of time where it gets harder and harder each morning to find an excuse to climb out of bed and face another pointless day.

    Several times I’ve tried to find a shrink who will work with me but the problem is that even though I have health insurance, it’s very crappy health insurance. I don’t get any sort of discount until I spend up to the $2500 deductible, and at $11/hr that’s a bit much. It’s nearly as bad as having no insurance at all. Hey, but at least the CEO of my company got his $24 million bonus last year!

    I used to be able to count on my close circle of friends for support, but last summer, my employer put me on a second-shift, Saturday-through-Wednesday schedule. I have literally not physically seen any of them for months and we only have Facebook to keep in touch. However, I can’t stand is how utterly clueless my friends can sometimes act when I talk about my problems: “Just talk a walk.” “Oh it’s just your imagination, snap out of it.” “Don’t worry about the future.” “You’ve got to learn to love yourself.” “Smile! Be Happy!” They seem to think that this is something that I can control and I’m only feeling bad out of some lack of will power, or worse, that I’m fishing for pity. “We’re sick of listening to you complain!” they say when I press the matter. “We’ve got our own problems.” (Which seems to have become our national motto.)

    So here I am. I lack support. I now lack friends. I’m just waiting for the next crisis or mood swing to send me into despair. Maybe that will finally push me over edge and I’ll decide that I’ve had enough of this shitty life. Who knows?

  29. bradleybetts says

    Ugh, JSTOR. The bane of my Uni days.

    How exactly does doing what he did warrant a 50 year prison term?! That is waaaaaay over the top.

  30. nightshadequeen says

    What Swartz did (as reported from various people, most of whom I have no reason to believe would defend administration):

    1. Connect a computer to MITnet and create a guest account.
    2. Began downloading articles from JSTOR. There are some online stories that claim he bypassed JSTOR’s download limits – afaik, this is not actually the case. (JSTOR may have had stated download limits, but certainly there was no software to prevent mass downloading)
    2.1. JSTOR realizes someone’s mass-downloading articles, and naturally isn’t happy. At some point in time, they block all of MIT from accessing JSTOR. (Hey. This timeline is rough).
    2.2 MIT realizes that there’s a lot of traffic going to this one computer and blocks it.
    2.3 aaronsw gets around the block, definitely by changing his MAC address, and also by other methods that are either a) badly reported or b) I don’t understand. (Also seen reported: MIT banned his IP address, which I feel is BS because I’m pretty sure IP addresses are dynamic. (Evidence: My own IP address keeps changing whenever I move this laptop around))
    3. Repeat a few cycles of this.
    4. Walk into an MIT comm closet, apparently with “a quick jerk”. Not known if this refers to carding the door or not (it may have been unlocked). Charge: Trespassing – later dropped by MIT
    5. Plug his computer into a hookup there. Not known if this was into an ethernet jack that happened to be there or actually into network equipment. Either way, fairly irrelevant, as he could have pretty much left it anywhere.
    6. Resume downloading from JSTOR.
    6.1 At some point in time, he gets caught on camera.

    Charges against aaronsw, as reported by this site.

    (a) Wire Fraud. The Wire Fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. 1343, prohibits a scheme to gain “property” by false pretenses.

    (b) Computer Fraud. The next charges were brought under the Computer Fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(4), which is a close cousin of the Wire Fraud statute

    (c) Unauthorized Access. The next charge was unauthorized access to a computer to obtain information valued more than $5,000, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(2)(C) and 18 U.S.C. 1030(c)(2)(B)(iii).

    (d) Computer Damage. The final charge brought was exceeding authorized access and thereby impairing the availability or integrity of information in ways that cause more than $5,000 or loss or involve more than 10 computers, in violation of 18 U.S.C. 1030(a)(5)(B) and 1030(c)(4)(A)(i)(I) & (VI).

    (analysis to come :D)

  31. nightshadequeen says

    (Also seen reported: MIT banned his IP address, which I feel is BS because I’m pretty sure IP addresses are dynamic. (Evidence: My own IP address keeps changing whenever I move this laptop around))

    Actually, JSTOR banned his IP address, which makes a lot more sense.

  32. hoverpuma says


    You’re missing a key piece. Swartz was not a member of the MIT community. He had no MIT account, nor had he created any kind of guest account pursuant to any kind of agreed rules of use. He snuck into a telecom closet at MIT, installed his laptop there hidden by a cardboard box to reduce its chance of being noticed by MIT’s IT staff, grabbed a static IP address, and started his mass downloads. This was not a case of MIT failing to “stand by” its community; this was a case of how MIT acted toward a person unaffiliated with the school who stole network access from it in order to make an ideological point.

    It’s reasonable to ask whether MIT’s actions in cooperating with law enforcement were proper, but MIT’s actions toward Swartz should be seen in light of an institution dealing with a stranger who physically breaks in with the intent to abuse its network access, regardless of whether Swartz’s motives happened to have an ideological basis that one might agree with. (I too happen to think that the current model of for-profit journal access is insane; I just don’t think that excuses one from responsibility for breaking and entering.)

    More info on what Swartz actually did at MIT is here:
    Swartz indicted for JSTOR theft – The Tech

  33. Cindy Holt says

    Aaron Swartz was aggressively prosecuted and threatened with a massive 35 year prison sentence by federal prosecutors for allegedly downloading millions of (taxpayer-funded)articles, essays and scholarly works from MIT’s databases, an act that was done not for money or malice, but to promote the critical truth that no society can be saved from the oligarchs and plutocrats, who core purpose for waking each morning is the desire to concentrate their power & resources while slinking in the shadows (and not be exposed to the light of day), while Jon Corzine walks as a free man, not even threatened with prosecution, while entities such as Goldman Sachs & TBTF banks pay relatively trivial fines (that represent a small % of ill gotten gains that they reaped) for far greater sins and crimes, and while murderous tyrants in African nations are left free to systematically rape and kill innocent humans (as they have been free to do for decades, while the west wages trillion dollar warfare in the “other” places that have deep reserves of oil and/or are systemically important in the never-ending saga of Arab/Israeli tension).

    Shame on the DoJ, shame on MIT (not just for this, but for being a co-opted and corrupted arm of the U.S. Government, the DoD/Pentagon/NSA in particular, rather than the bastion of academic progress and excellence it promotes itself as), and shame on all of academia for either following in the footsteps of MIT (that would be you, Yale, Harvard, Standord, et al.) or for their deafening silence on the original sin of MIT.

  34. Cindy Holt says

    The MIT is one of the universities heavily tied to Big Military from what I found out. Swartz being a hero in trying to spread the education wealth unlike Obama and the feckless Democrats pretending to “spread the wealth” and then calling people making 400k a year “middle class”, I could see how the monied and military elites would hate people who tried to help make it easier for people to properly manage the information they come across on the Internet. The death of Swartz is another reason this administration deserves to be impeached and convicted.

    Swartz was ahead of his time
    A victim cut-down in his prime
    His criminal deed
    To help those in need?
    I no longer understand “crime”

    The Limerick King

  35. nightshadequeen says

    MIT’s actions toward Swartz should be seen in light of an institution dealing with a stranger who physically breaks in with the intent to abuse its network access, regardless of whether Swartz’s motives happened to have an ideological basis that one might agree with

    Agreed. He should have been fined $50 and warned like anyone else.

  36. Cindy Holt says

    Aaron Swartz was liberating information that was paid for by the public. JSTOR is a store for academic articles that the public have to pay unnecessarily high charges to view. Academics are trained by the state, their research is, for the most part, funded by the state. Academic publishers are just another example of corporate welfare. Swartz was liberating what, in any just society, belonged to the public.

    What gets me is that the people we allow to make our laws and prosecute them are so enmeshed in a world view that defies common sense. Their actions epitomize the venal nature of our ruling class. Why on earth are we letting these cold and calculating sociopaths rule us?

  37. hoverpuma says

    Agreed. He should have been fined $50 and warned like anyone else.

    The “usual” $50-and-a-warning thing is applied to general trespassing on campus, particularly pertaining to the IHTFP crowd. Student gets caught “exploring” a rooftop or a steam tunnel with no ulterior motive, that’s where the “usual” $50 applies. Swartz wasn’t a student, and he wasn’t “exploring” for the sake of roof-and-tunnel sign-in cred. He was accessing a telecom closet with the explicit intent of gaining unauthorized network access for his downloads. He also pulled a similar stunt in the campus office of a student computer club, social engineering his way in and hiding his own laptop amid their piles of equipment.

    And in any case, the trespassing charges were dropped entirely. So there wasn’t even a fine. The remaining charges were due to federal prosecutors based on computer intrusion laws.

    You’re welcome to argue that the federal charges were ridiculously overzealous – I’d probably even agree with that. The harm to JSTOR was minimal. His suicide (any suicide!) is a tragedy, and the exacerbating factor of his depression sheds light on our sorry state of mental health care and the demonization of mental illness. But what I can’t agree with is the idea that MIT was under any institutional obligation to shield him from federal law enforcement.

    Remember, MIT wasn’t the entity threatening Swartz with draconian punishments – that was the federal prosecutor. MIT may have been in a position to lobby law enforcement one way or another, and it could have elected not to cooperate with the investigation (as it has sometimes done in the past when students have been involved in such cases). But they had no reason to do so – Swartz had no relationship with the university other than having come in off the street to abuse its net access.

    So there’s lots to criticize in terms of how the feds prosecuted Swartz, and in terms of the underlying issues of access, but I can’t find myself being sympathetic with the idea that MIT “hounded” him unreasonably, or that it was under any obligation to “stand by” him any more than any other unaffiliated person who walks in with the intent of abusing the campus resources.

    As for a non-Tech source, no, I don’t really intend to. I have no reason to regard their reporting as inaccurate on the matter. If you have good and reliably attributed information that contradicts their reporting or conclusively undermines its credibility, feel free to share it, but I’m not aware of other sources which have collected that level of detail. But even if you’re skeptical of The Tech for some reason, your own list of asserted facts is still perfectly consistent with the fact that Swartz had no authorization to be in an MIT telecom closet or to make use of its network in the manner he did, nor was he a member of the MIT community.

    That said MIT President Rafael Reif has announced that MIT will be conducting an inquiry into the exact nature of MIT’s actions related to Swartz, led by Prof. Hal Abelson – who I’d hope most would recognize as a vocal advocate for open systems and information in many arenas. I’d certainly be skeptical of claims that Abelson would be biased toward JSTOR without strong evidence. If that investigation turns up anything which contradicts The Tech’s reporting, I’d regard that as more reliable.

  38. says

    Sorry I was out of pocket after posting in this thread yesterday, but in the event anyone I address herein is still around I’d really like to respond.

    #14 iname – Your description of the experience is painfully spot on, in particular “Knowing it’ll never change.” Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”) stresses among other things analyzing (and deliberately rewriting) the demonstrably false depressive scripts we tell ourselves; for me skepticism was very much a key to unlocking the prison cell. For example: “Right now I am feeling it’ll never change, but in reality I know no such thing. Virtually all of my past experiences (and the laws of the universe) are pretty unequivocal on the point that things most certainly will change.”

    Feeling Good” (David Burns, 1999 mass market paperback) is an excellent resource for cognitive therapy. (It’s a bit outdated with respect to newer generation antidepressants, but the guidelines are still useful.) When I was finally treated effectively for major depression my therapist said reading this book would save me enormous time and money in sessions. I cannot recommend the book (or the cognitive approach taught therein) highly enough.

    #8 Armored Scrum Object

    Depression is “highly treatable” in the sense that for most cases of depression, there is a mix of treatments that will substantially reduce symptoms. Actually finding that mix and learning to deal with its limitations and side effects can be a months-long project, and getting/staying on top of a new project is not the sort of thing that one can reasonably demand from a depressed person.

    No disagreement here. When I said “depression is a very treatable mental illness” and “miserable track record at mental health intervention,” I was referring to these facts that you describe here with much more nuance and depth. I apologize if my comment just came across as glib or shallow.

    #19 Nepenthe – Jeezus Christ, I am so sorry. Further to my above reply to Armored Scrum Object, I think part of the solution is to train general practitioners as a first line of defense. For one thing, in the U.S. at least, the cost of the visit (or copay) is far less than a therapy session. For another, “finding that mix and learning to deal with its limitations and side effects can be a months-long project,” but it has to start somewhere; why not with a doctor who already knows your health history suggesting you pick up and read the Burns book (or another CBT resource that costs $7.99) and/or get you started titrating up to a therapeutic dose of an antidepressant? It is not likely to be the optimal approach for any given patient, but it is very likely to offer some relief of symptoms — perhaps enough to help get one through the daunting hoops you describe.

    #21 tonysnark, #35 Akira MacKenzie (also Nepenthe):

    Like iname’s comment and others, yours are so painful to read. Perhaps the only thing I can really offer is my own story — which in your present state of mind is probably no consolation at all but here goes: I was where you are (including a suicide attempt, found by my sister), and I got well. I still battle depression from time to time, but now I have tools to do so swiftly and effectively. If I can be a resource for you, if you just need someone who gets it to vent to, or words of encouragement (that don’t sound anything like Akira’s friends’!), please write me at irisvpluym over there at the gmail location.

    Wishing all of you wellness.

  39. says

    #46 Cindy Holt:

    Why on earth are we letting these cold and calculating sociopaths rule us?

    Because cold and calculating sociopaths are apparently the only people who want that job.

    # 47 samuelerkison:

    Thanks very much for that link — very detailed and informative, and Alex Stamos seems to be a highly credible source.

  40. WharGarbl says


    Agreed. He should have been fined $50 and warned like anyone else.

    According to the link samuelerkison posted in #47 (which might be considered less biased)… that’s exactly what MIT & JSTOR did.
    “After his arrest and release, Aaron settled civilly with MIT and JSTOR, returning the downloaded files, paying a small fine and promising to not attempt such downloading again.”

  41. hoverpuma says

    @samuelerkison: That io9 opinion piece was written by the defense expert witness for Swartz in the federal case. It makes some interesting points regarding the openness of MIT’s campus, network, and libraries (wait, isn’t that a good thing?), but any claims that it’s unbiased are ridiculous. It also does not actually contradict the factual reporting of The Tech article I linked.

    In addition, the io9 piece makes unsubstantiated claims. It asserts that the telecom closet was unlocked. The Tech does not speculate on whether it was locked or unlocked, in proper journalistic practice. It claims that some unnamed “MIT administrators” decided to involve federal law enforcement (complete with a sinister link to the internal web page for MIT’s legal office), but does not substantiate the assertion.

    In contrast, the Tech article I linked is primarily a factual timeline, which refrains from speculation. Please explain: how is the io9 article more “honest”?

  42. nightshadequeen says


    Forgive me if I don’t immediately accept the Tech’s stories after the sleep survey.

    The version I’ve got is pulled together from internet trawls and various zephyr conversations.

  43. nightshadequeen says

    He also pulled a similar stunt in the campus office of a student computer club, social engineering his way in and hiding his own laptop amid their piles of equipment.

    Emphasis mine, since I believe you actually meant “walked in”, since [redacted]’s office is open to visitors.

  44. nightshadequeen says

    Also, IMO the closet thing is a red herring; afaik he didn’t do anything there he couldn’t have done by hooking his computer up to the ethernet ports, say, under 16’s athena quickstations.

  45. nightshadequeen says

    According to the link samuelerkison posted in #47 (which might be considered less biased)… that’s exactly what MIT & JSTOR did.
    “After his arrest and release, Aaron settled civilly with MIT and JSTOR, returning the downloaded files, paying a small fine and promising to not attempt such downloading again.”

    I was getting to that.

    So far, I haven’t actually read anything that says MIT pursued aaronsw at all. Lots of “MIT remained silent”.

    However, MIT could have a) defended him* and b) not turned over his web history without a warrant/subpeona.

    *It could have released a statement along the lines of “seriously, thirty-five years is not okay” the way JSTOR did.

    (also explaining why releasing the web history was “necessary” is a good first step.)

    That said:

    Frankly, this would be a lot more clearcut if aaronsw stopped before changing his MAC address/didn’t hose JSTOR’s servers nearly as much.

    Also: The stuff I quoted here is completely nonsensical by the light of day.

    1. If you want the info of someone’s RAM….um, can I say cold boot attack?
    2. afaik aaronsw’s computer was not encrypted. A login screen should not have stymied the FBI, since mounting the HD on another computer/booting from a flash drive would have easily bypassed the login.

    QED either the article is BS or the FBI are the worst hackers ever. Bets on which one is more likely?

  46. nightshadequeen says

    Also – minor clarification on 32

    When I wrote that, I was under the impression that aaronsw was, in some way, an MIT affiliate, which would mean that MIT doubly* failed him.

    *Mental health services would be the second way.

    That said: I’m wrong about that. I still believe MIT should have defended him from the DOJ, but MIT didn’t hound or tag-team him.

  47. hoverpuma says

    @nightshadequeen: So you have spoken to some people at MIT, and read some web pages, and don’t trust the Tech. That’s your prerogative, but you haven’t provided any evidence to back up your viewpoint. You’ve also not refuted my point that Swartz was not a member of the MIT community, and that his relationship with MIT was purely one of abusing its facilities above and beyond reasonable guest use.

    As for the student club office, it is true that the first thing he did was to “walk in”. The next thing he did was “hide his laptop in that office without permission”. I regard the whole event as “social engineering” because he made use of false pretenses (general guest occupancy of that student club office) to perform an action which he was very much aware neither the club nor MIT at large would authorize. “Social engineering” can refer to something as simple as walking into a place and acting as if you’re doing something legitimate in order to avoid challenge, which is exactly what he did.

    Speculating about whether he could have done the same thing from an unlocked ethernet port in a hallway (personally I suspect the laptop would have been stolen from that location pretty quickly, and it also wouldn’t surprise me if port access in the telecom closet allowed him to get around the usual method of tracking down the physical location of a misbehaving machine by its switch port) is even more of a red herring. As the io9 piece notes, Swartz had already been playing “a three month cat-and-mouse game, where Aaron would connect to open MIT networks in various ways and obtain new IP addresses, and JSTOR would then block that IP after noticing what they considered too many downloads.” He knew very well that he was doing things with MIT’s net that MIT was trying to stop, and his use of fake names and physical evasion made it pretty much impossible for MIT to get a preliminary “stop that, you!” message to him.

    But even if he had done these things without getting into the telecom closet, so what? Would that then mean that MIT had an obligation to protect him from law enforcement?

    Look, I don’t know that MIT was 100% blameless in this regard, and I don’t want to act as a blanket apologist for every action the administration takes. It’s bungled ethical issues in the past, and probably will in the future. (Google “Scott Krueger” for just one sad example.) Maybe it will come out that MIT did pressure the US Attorney for an overly draconian prosecution on the “cyber-crime” part of the charges (unlike the physical trespassing charges, which MIT settled civilly). But most of the criticism I’ve seen of MIT in this case to date have assumed that MIT had some obligation to “stand by” Swartz that doesn’t make a lot of sense given Swartz’s actions around the MIT campus and network, or else assumed without verification that MIT was somehow capable of pressing criminal charges against Swartz rather than the federal prosecutors.

  48. hoverpuma says

    On consideration, if you really want to be pedantic about it, I am standing by “social engineering”, but will accept correction on “his way in”. He used social engineering to place his laptop in the club office, not to gain access to the office. Mea culpa.

  49. nightshadequeen says

    I’m going to sum up my position:

    1. What aaronsw did with the MAC addresses was Not Cool.
    2. Under the law, as written, the DOJ had every right to charge aaronsw.
    3. Given that JSTOR dropped charges, the fact that the DOJ still pursued the charges was kind of douchebaggy.
    4. Given MIT’s supposed open culture, I feel like MIT was morally obligated to denounce the charges.

  50. hoverpuma says

    I’m pretty much with you on 1-3. I’d go farther than you on #1 – I think he did several other Not Cool things. I also strongly agree with #3, and I think that’s the heart of what’s seriously wrong with how Swartz was treated. He did some douchey things with full awareness that they were douchey, but a sane prosecutorial environment would give him a slap on the wrist for them, not this whole mess.

    #4 is my only point of disagreement. Just because, to a certain extent, there’s an “open culture” doesn’t mean that MIT is under an automatic moral obligation to defend people who knowingly abuse that openness. The campus famously doesn’t lock many of its buildings, but that doesn’t incur an automatic moral obligation for MIT to defend non-MIT people who (just for example) decide to occupy unused classrooms for their own purposes and get in trouble for it.

    But that said, your #4 is a valid moral argument to have. I may not agree with your conclusion, but you’re at least basing your point on things that have actually happened. What I’m objecting to is the narrative that MIT somehow “hounded” Swartz to death, which I’ve been seeing pretty widely spread (including in PZ’s initial posting, as well as the official statement of Swartz’s family) with very little factual support backing it up. If there are facts that I’m not aware of which show MIT being actively pushy in having Swartz prosecuted, I’d certainly need to reconsider my stance. But as things stand, it appears that MIT’s only (arguable) wrong was one of inaction to defend someone who’d been abusing its resources, which is a far cry from “hounding” him to death.

    Incidentally, for a prior example of MIT getting tangled up in the wheels of criminal justice and “cyber-crime”, check out the case of Dave LaMacchia. DML was an MIT undergrad at the time, running a warez site on an Athena workstation. The feds got involved and prosecuted him, and MIT took some flak for not defending him more strongly. At the same time, there was a bunch of speculation that MIT wasn’t given a lot of choice in the matter, with people pointing to the fact that MIT had already quietly spun up an internal disciplinary process when the feds handed down the indictment, implying that the university had been taken somewhat by surprise. It was never really made clear what the internal decision making process was. But given that MIT wasn’t able (or willing) to defend an actual MIT student who got mixed up in a ridiculously overblown and over-prosecuted federal “cyber-crime” case, is it realistic to expect them to do it for a non-affiliate?

  51. Cindy Holt says

    The lack of proportion shown in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz is what bothers me. Huge crimes by bankers are ignored, while they throw the book at Swartz. JSTOR is a road-block thrown up against reading articles published in academic journals, a huge proportion of them in the humanities. This limits the spread of knowledge for the purpose of generating profits for the owners of JSTOR. (Who are they, by the way?) Why this sense of appalling vengeance on the part of the DOJ.

    Any suicide is a tragedy, especially in the case of one so young and so deeply talented. Reasons can never be certain, but being hounded by the government can’t help. And he was attempting to spread knowledge, certainly a better motive than that the banks exhibited. Very sad.

  52. hoverpuma says

    @Cindy Holt: “Who are they, by the way?”

    That’s fairly easily researched; it’s hardly a secret.

    JSTOR is a component of a non-profit organization called ITHAKA (they merged in 2009). Its mission statement claims that “ITHAKA is a not-for-profit organization that helps the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.”

    Some cursory searching turns up its executive leadership roster, and its trustee list. As a registered non-profit, it is hopefully not generating any dividends for its “owners”, though its staff may or may not be quite well paid, and the private publishers it pays in turn for the content may well be raking it in (based on the frequently unpaid labor of those publishers’ authors, reviewers, and editors). If JSTOR/ITHAKA is in fact generating profits for its board or trustees, that would be considered fairly scandalous.

    The idea that JSTOR itself is “a roadblock” doesn’t make a lot of sense. JSTOR manages the digital editions of many publishers’ journals, and one could argue that its restrictions on who can view that content are a form of “roadblock”. But those restrictions are almost certainly imposed by the for-profit publishers from whom JSTOR gets the content. JSTOR may have some leverage with the publishers, but it’s not as if JSTOR can dictate terms of distribution to them unilaterally.

    Interestingly, in a horrible piece of timing irony, JSTOR announced on Jan 8th a program of increased free access to current articles for the general public as part of its “Register & Read” program. Swartz committed suicide on Jan 11th.

  53. Esteleth, Ultra-PC Feminist Harpy Out To Destroy Secularism says

    The ironic thing?

    Aaron Swartz’s big cause is the same thing that underpins libraries. Stew on that for a sec.