Aaron Swartz and 21st-Century Martyrdom

By Matt Stoller

Aaron Swartz at a rally against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012. Photo via Flickr user Daniel J. Sieradski

In early 2013, David Karp, the co-founder of Tumblr, graced the cover of Forbes magazine with a headline blaring: "A $200 million fortune by 26.” The same month, another 26-year-old genius who started and sold a tech company, Aaron Swartz, was effectively killed by the United States government for engaging in political advocacy. Swartz's death was not that different from the deaths of many others in our culture. A federal prosecutor named Stephen Heymann was 'overzealous,' in the words of one writer working on a book about Swartz, which is a passive aggressive way of saying he used the power of the state to damage someone for careerist, vindictive, or bureaucratic reasons having nothing to do with an application of justice. Thousands have had that done to them in, say, the name of the war on drugs. This time it was because a guy who ran a computer crime division needed something to do.

The key difference from most other federal cases is that the victim was smart, rich, white, and deeply connected to the technology world’s elite. At the age of 13, Swartz helped create an important technical standard known as RSS, and while still a teenager, he helped sell a company called Reddit after it merged with his own project, Infogami. He began working in progressive politics, wherein we became friends. As a congressional intern, he helped advocate for reform of the health care system and the Federal Reserve. In 2012, Swartz used the knowledge he gained to lead an unprecedented political campaign to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that would have undermined free speech on the internet.

In death, Swartz became far more famous than he was in life. I saw this firsthand. I was working with him on a project about narcotics reform, and he sent me an email that he had the flu and would be a bit late with a draft of a report. A month later, hundreds of journalists were writing about his death, and he had become a martyr. Multiple US Senators attended his funeral, and one Congresswoman introduced something to the House of Representatives called Aaron's Law, which would have reformed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) used to terrorize him. A therapist friend of mine told me that young male clients of hers were bringing up his name spontaneously. And last week, Brian Knappenberger released a wonderful documentary called The Internet's Own Boy about Swartz. It's worth seeing, because it speaks to the martyrdom of Swartz, and to a deep strain of malevolence in modern American culture.

But why is Swartz considered a martyr? Why did this sweet, intelligent, and highly capable individual die, and why did his death spark so much interest beyond the circle of people who knew him?

I think it has to do with the fact that Swartz was a moral outlier in American culture. He was an economic and political winner, and yet he took ethics more seriously than he did money. He was a millionaire, yet interned in Congress to learn the process of legislating—a tech genius who did not try to climb the greasy poll of Silicon Valley success. Swartz won the rat race and then decided he didn't want to be a rat. America frowns on this archetype, celebrating only a narrow form of success for men. Take Tumblr’s Karp, and compare him to Aaron. Karp and Aaron both grew up privileged, and both showed remarkable skill at organizing large numbers of people on the internet. But while Karp used his expertise to spy on people so that Yahoo could sell them things, Swartz used his expertise to make the world a better place. Karp was rewarded with money and fame while Swartz was rewarded with arrest.

Here's what happened, and the facts aren't really in dispute.

In 2011, Swartz hooked a laptop up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network and downloaded a bunch of documents from an academic database named JSTOR. Swartz had a history of analyzing large batches of academic data and little or no history of breaking the law. But prosecutor Stephen Heymann, the man in charge of a computer crime division in the US Attorney's office in Boston, saw the situation differently. When Swartz attached a computer to MIT's famously open network, Heymann saw a nefarious 'hacker' breaking into MIT. And while Swartz thought he was just doing a bulk download of published academic research, Heymann decided that what was happening was computer fraud.

JSTOR did not ultimately press charges, and there was no lasting damage or illegal activity. Still, Heymann charged Swartz with multiple counts of computer fraud, and threatened to put him in jail for more than 30 years. Activists thought this was absurd, and began petitioning for Swartz's release. The prosecutor decided that activists should be taught a lesson and their hero put away—Heymann brought a new indictment with many more charges. It had moved, in Heymann's words, from an individual case to an “institutional” one. MIT, despite a history of encouraging hacking, stayed quiet, essentially giving the prosecutor license to go ahead.

After several years of being threatened and deceived, and after having spent his entire fortune on legal fees, Swartz hung himself on January 11, 2013. After he died, Heymann retreated from public comment. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for files on Swartz's case have been denied or heavily redacted. No one, not Heymann or anyone else in the Justice Department, has been disciplined. A few months after Aaron's death, Heymann's boss Carmen Ortiz held a press conference on the Boston Marathon bombing, apparently intent on getting her political career back on track. MIT had its village elders, like computer scientist Hal Abelson, put out a disgraceful report concluding that the school had done nothing wrong. The White House, despite 50,000 signatures on its petition page seeking justice for Aaron, hasn't deigned to do anything. The absurd law used by Heymann to prosecute Swartz was never changed, the tweak apparently having been blocked by tech giants, who want to use it as a potential cudgel against ex-employees. Swartz's death, in other words, was followed by a mass campaign of CYA.

In an age of dramatic economic and political inequality, Swartz's death is proof that it does not matter how talented you are or how hard you work—American meritocracy is a sham. If Swartz, a rich tech genius with an unparalleled network of powerful friends and a remarkable track record of success, couldn't live an ethical, dignified life, then who can? Our contemporary culture is crippled by increasingly Soviet-style barriers against all who challenge the status quo. It has criminal statutes so broad that basically everyone is a lawbreaker, and selective prosecution has become a mechanism for ordering our politics. It demands deep moral compromise just to live with minimal interference from authority. It requires that, to be a 'success' like Karp, you must have not only the talent to build appealing social systems, but also the lack of a moral compass involved in using those social systems to manipulate others. The ethic of this approach is designed by those who fear only those risks associated with human freedom.

Those who dislike this culture, who think that success is the opposite of killing or spying or greed or ass-kissing, saw virtue in Swartz. Swartz had character, and he was killed for it.

If Swartz could comment on his own death, he would probably point out that it was noticed only because people like him don’t go through the criminal justice system. Millions, mostly poor, black and/or brown, he would say, are killed and punished, grieved only by their friends and family. Swartz was supposed to be in a protected class, a class of liberal elites. His death showed that injustice is coming for all of us, because the same leaders who killed Swartz, covered up the reasons for his death, and then cleared the institution—MIT—that allowed him to die, are still in charge.

Swartz's death matters because it illustrates a fundamental truth about modern American politics. He wanted nothing more than to build, to make our society better, to heal the sick and turn swords into ploughshares. He did what all great activists and dissidents do, which is to show where our own rhetoric falls short, and point us towards a brighter path. At other moments in history, we would have protected our young, and recognized that they seek to build a better world. But our institutions—corporate, academic, and political—are, by and large, run by careerist sociopaths, and these people decided it's more important to take out the Aaron Swartzs of the world than to admit their own error.

Facing up to this evil is not easy. It requires dropping many of the illusions we hold about our world, our friends, and our laws. But the people that did this aren't going to stop with Swartz. Heymann, I'm sure, didn't actually intend to kill him. He simply meant to destroy his reputation, confiscate his money, and make him a felon. But while Swartz's death was a mistake, destroying him as a lesson to all of us wasn't a mistake. It was policy.

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