World poorer for loss of tech genius Aaron Swartz
The Kansas City Star
It’s one of the mysteries of depression that someone like Aaron Swartz, a recognized tech genius by the age of 26, could describe himself as “worthless” in his blog. His suicide a week ago shocked the tech community.
In his teens, Swartz helped write the RSS standard, was a builder of Reddit.com and led the successful opposition to the controversial federal Stop Online Piracy Act.
He believed data should be free and he assigned himself the mission of liberating it. He moved a big chunk of the PACER database — the registry of online federal court documents — into the public domain, using a maneuver ultimately deemed legal.
But that stunt put him in the eye of federal prosecutors, who were apparently frustrated by their inability to bring charges.
In 2010, Swartz went further. He tapped into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network and downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles from the subscription-only JSTOR site. This time, Swartz potentially faced more than three decades in prison and a million-dollar fine.
Prone to depression and reportedly worn out from the financial and emotional stresses of his legal troubles, Swartz took his life in his New York apartment last week. His death raised questions about the heavy-handed nature of the prosecution, and about whether the legal basis for the case rested on an overly broad statute.
The 1968 computer-fraud law bars use of a computer “without authorization” or via a method that “exceeds authorized access,” but the statute doesn’t define those terms.
In light of Swartz’s death, the Justice Department should review its handling of cases under that law and how it pursues particular instances of hacking. An earlier case handled by Swartz’s prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, also ended in suicide.
In a statement made public Wednesday, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz expressed condolences to Swartz’s family and noted that her office had informed Swartz’s lawyer that it planned to recommend a sentence of no more than six months in a “low-security setting.”
Computer hacking is an affliction of our times, and what Swartz was accused of doing was no small matter. But he didn’t do it for personal gain. JSTOR told federal prosecutors it did not want to pursue charges, and last week JSTOR opened its website, allowing anyone to read its archives for free — the right move.
Swartz was one of those brilliant creatures of the IT world’s quirky, unpredictable culture — a realm whose ways are mysterious to many of us until some new gadget or website comes on the scene, joining the others that have revolutionized our lives.
Swartz’s salient fault — a complete lack of moderation — was also one of his virtues. However you sort this sad case, the world is poorer for his loss.