The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, Aug. 19, 2009. Sage Ross, dpa/Corbis

In june 1954, Alan Turing, an architect of the digital age and a wartime code breaker extraordinaire, committed suicide. Deeply un­happy, but also persecuted by the law for his sexual orientation, Turing left the world having given it the concept of a stored-­memory computer and, barely 42, with uncounted years to build on that idea.

In Brooklyn, on Jan. 11, Aaron Swartz—a prodigy of the Internet age and an information theorist extraordinaire—committed suicide. By all accounts he was depressed, but he was also being pursued by federal prosecutors with near-manic vindictiveness, say supporters. His crime? Downloading millions of academic papers from a scholarly database in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—not for profit, but to argue that academic research, which could benefit mankind, should be freely available except when the copyright directly benefited the author.

Why, many are asking, did officials at the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office pursue Swartz as if he were the Che Guevara of the "information shall be free" movement? Was he really too dangerous a threat to intellectual property to be given community service—or to benefit from the leniency that MIT has routinely showed toward students with a liberal attitude toward downloading journal articles?

As Artemis Internet CTO Alex Stamos notes, infractions of a similar nature happened almost once a month at MIT. Moreover, JSTOR—the database in question—had reached a settlement with Swartz for just $2,000 and had retrieved all its data; it explicitly disavowed interest in any federal indictment, let alone one that listed 13 felonies and threatened 35 years in prison.

Stamos, who was to have served as an expert witness for Swartz, believes that the government's charges were so vague they would not have survived a jury trial. "What Aaron did was not hacking," he said. "He downloaded more free files than you probably should, but that's like going back to the all-you-can-eat salad bar too many times for shrimp."

He believes that the prosecutors simply saw a chance to get a prominent information crusader who had evaded them in the past, so they threw everything they could at him over the course of two intensely brutal years. Financially, the case was bleeding Swartz dry. Emotionally trying as well, his friends and girlfriend were forced to testify against him in grand-jury hearings.

At just 26, Swartz's technical achievements, while staggeringly impressive (as a teenager, he developed the RSS newsfeed and helped to create the distribution site Reddit), cannot rank with Turing's, but both shared that rare talent of being able to find the practical in the abstract. And, if the grieving of the great and good is a measure of lost potential and vision, then the comparison is apt. "We have lost a wise elder," tweeted Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

"He was all about doing right," said Ron Lachman, a close family friend and leading Internet technologist. "He shook the foundations of public policy regarding the Internet, as well as the technology itself. He had potential for more. He will be missed."

Trevor Butterworth is a contributor to Newsweek and editor at large for