Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, 26, committed suicide the other day, evidently hounded to his death by overzealous prosecutors.
I didn’t know Mr. Swartz, and I don’t condone his actions of a couple of years ago, where it is alleged that he attached equipment to the MIT computer network to steal academic articles from the JSTOR database in order to release them to the public.
However, the more I learn about the conduct of the government in prosecuting Mr. Swartz, the angrier I get.
For those lacking any context, go read what Larry Lessig had to say in


or what Cory Doctorow had to say in


Here is the letter I’ve sent to my Senator, Elizabeth Warren.  I’ve sent a similar letter to Sen. John Kerry

I call to your attention the recent suicide of Aaron Swartz.  It looks
very much to me like the US Justice Department hounded him to his
death by overzealous prosecution of a victimless “crime” if it even was
a crime.

Larry Lessig writes on the case:
I would like to know what you are doing to hold the prosecutors and
their bosses at Justice to account for this affair.
I voted for you in part for your history of representing the issues
of ordinary people against big business.  Please also represent us
against the oppressive power of government.
-Larry Stewart
I’ve sent the following email to Rafael Rief, President of MIT

I understand that the Swartz affair started before you became president of MIT, but I think you should explain to the community what happened, why it happened, and exactly what principles MIT holds.

From what I’ve heard, MIT provided the pretext necessary for the US Attorney ****** to hound Aaron Swartz to his death.

 See, for example, Larry Lessig’s account at


It may well be that Mr. Swartz was guilty of something, and it may be that MIT favored prosecution, but once MIT started such a ball rolling MIT became responsible in part for the damage it caused.  At the minimum, MIT had an obligation to track the case and to speak out loudly when it began to go off the rails of proportional justice in such a dramatic way.

-Larry Stewart ’76

(name removed because I am not sure I got it right)

I don’t know what the right answers are in this case, but I am beginning to think we should handle failures of justice in the same way we handle airplane crashes.  Do we need an equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board to investigate?  Such a group could find out what happened, why it happened, and what legal, procedural, training, and technical measures are needed to keep it from happening again.  And their reports and proceedings should be open.
We now have so many laws and crimes, and so many are ill-defined, that likely everybody is “guilty” of something.  When the full oppressive power of government can be brought to bear on anyone at the discretion of individuals or groups with their own agenda, then no one is safe.


About an hour after I wrote to MIT President Reif, he wrote to the community.  Obviously he’s well ahead of me on this one, since his message must have already been in progress.   Professor Hal Abelson will be leading a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement.  I await the report with interest.

One thought on “Aaron Swartz”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *