Aaron Swartz: He wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?

Aaron Swartz Wanted To Save the World. Why Couldn’t He Save Himself?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Feb. 7 2013 9:47 PM

The Idealist

Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?

(Continued from Page 5)

Though Swartz loved Cambridge, Mass., he felt he had to get away. In mid-2011, he started spending more time in New York City; around the same time, he grew closer to his friend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. A political activist who had worked at Avaaz with Ben Wikler, Stinebrickner-Kauffman met Swartz the previous year, in D.C. They shared similar interests and vaguely similar backgrounds. (“We would joke about how the two of us would really confuse the Census,” she says. “We could be reasonably recorded as two unmarried high school dropouts living together in a one-room studio.”) Gradually, a romance bloomed in rocky terrain. “The month I started dating him he quit two jobs, broke up with his ex-girlfriend, moved from Cambridge to New York, and was indicted,” says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “It was kind of a bad time in his life.”

They moved to New York City, renting a studio in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. With the SOPA fight over, the JSTOR case consumed Swartz’s time and energy. “When he first came to New York, he was taking buses back to Boston every Monday to show up at court at 9 a.m., and show them that he hadn’t fled,” Wikler remembers. Swartz only really discussed the case with his father and his lawyers. He worried about dragging his friends into it—he didn’t want anyone else to be subpoenaed. The stress wore on him, and on Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “He had this view that he shouldn’t rely on anyone else,” she says. “That strength meant standing alone.”

The idea of being the last honest man taking a stand against a corrupt world is an appealing one, especially to an idealist like Swartz. It meant not letting his adversaries see they were getting to him. “The semblance of normality was really important to him,” says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. As such, he continued his lifelong habit of taking on new projects, becoming a contributing editor at the Baffler, the newly revived, pro-labor journal. “Aaron was the least pretentious person I’ve ever met,” says John Summers, the Baffler’s editor. “He was willing to have hourlong conversations to help a printed magazine get back on its feet.”

But Swartz no longer had the luxury to dabble. He was using his own money to fight the charges, and he needed a cash infusion. Lawrence Lessig’s wife Bettina Neuefeind set up a legal defense fund. Swartz himself, under great duress, started contacting wealthy acquaintances to ask for help. Jeff Mayersohn, owner of the independent Harvard Book Store, recalls getting an email from his friend in August 2012. Mayersohn agreed to contribute, and suggested holding meetings and fundraisers to raise more money. Swartz demurred. “It was hard enough for me to make this simple ask of you,” Mayersohn remembers him replying.

It was becoming clear, at least, that the government’s case had some weak points. The superseding indictment, filed on Sept. 12, 2012, claimed that Swartz had “contrived to break into a restricted-access wiring closet at MIT.” But the closet door had been unlocked—and remained unlocked even after the university and authorities were aware that someone had been in there trying to access the school’s network.

The indictment went on to charge that Swartz had “contrived to … access MIT’s network without authorization from a switch within that closet” and “access JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through MIT’s computer network.” But Alex Stamos, an independent expert retained by Swartz’s defense team, had prepared a strong counter-argument. Stamos argued that Swartz’s access to MIT’s network had in fact been authorized, by virtue of MIT’s lax attitude toward network security. In a blog post published after Swartz’s death, Stamos explained that MIT’s computer network was extraordinarily easy to access—“in my 12 years of professional security work I have never seen a network this open”—and that it was maintained that way on purpose in “the spirit of the MIT ethos.” The JSTOR site, he continued, “lacked even the most basic controls to prevent what they might consider abusive behavior, such as CAPTCHAs triggered on multiple downloads.”

Swartz, the indictment continued, had also “contrived to … use this access to download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s total archive onto his computers and computer hard drives,” and “avoid MIT’s and JSTOR’s efforts to prevent this massive copying, efforts that were directed at users generally and at Swartz’s illicit conduct specifically.” But these charges, too, were disputable. Stamos argued that prosecutors had also “provided no evidence that these downloads caused a negative effect on JSTOR or MIT, except due to silly overreactions such as turning off all of MIT’s JSTOR access due to downloads from a pretty easily identified user agent.”

“We had a very good expert,” says Elliot Peters, Swartz’s attorney, “and he had helped us understand how the MIT network worked, and how access to JSTOR was accomplished. And it seemed to me that it wasn't accomplished in a way which involved any unauthorized computer access.”

Swartz hired Peters, a partner at the San Francisco firm Keker & Van Nest, in October 2012. Peters, who has also represented Lance Armstrong, was Swartz’s third different lead attorney. As the weeks went by, he only became more optimistic about Swartz’s chances, and the prospect of knocking out a bunch of the evidence that the prosecutors were planning to use at trial. “We made a bunch of suppression motions, including a motion to suppress the search of Aaron's laptop and USB drive, because they took 34 days after they seized it to get a search warrant,” says Peters. On Dec. 14, Peters and prosecutor Stephen Heymann appeared before Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton, who set an evidentiary hearing for Jan. 25, 2013. A few days later, prosecutors released 170 megabytes of new evidence that made Swartz’s defense team even more hopeful. Included in this trove were communications between Heymann and law enforcement, extending to the time before Swartz’s arrest. Peters was confident that this new information strengthened his position.

On Jan. 9, 2013, Peters called Heymann to discuss the upcoming evidentiary hearing. “Toward the end of it,” Peters recalls, “I said ‘Can’t we find some way to make this case go away?’ I remember saying to them, ‘It’s just not right for this case to ruin Aaron’s life.’ ” The prosecutor responded with a familiar refrain: the government would never agree to a deal that didn’t include jail time, and if Swartz was convicted at trial, they would seek a guidelines sentence in the range of seven years. As usual, the defense and the prosecution could reach no common ground. The case—scheduled to go to trial on April 1, barring further delays—would continue.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, the day after this latest failure to secure a plea deal, Stinebrickner-Kauffman was coming back to New York City from a retreat upstate. Swartz texted her, asking when she was going to be home but not explaining why. When she arrived, he jumped out from behind the door and yelled, “Surprise!”

Swartz in December 30, 2006.
Swartz in December 2006.

Courtesy of Quinn Norton/Flickr

Though Stinebrickner-Kauffman was feeling tired, Swartz was in high spirits, and insisted that they go meet some friends at a Lower East Side bar called Spitzer’s Corner. Swartz treated himself to two of his favorite foods: macaroni and cheese and a grilled cheese sandwich. The mac and cheese was mediocre, but Swartz and Stinebrickner-Kauffman agreed that the grilled cheese sandwich was among the best they had ever eaten.

On the morning of Jan. 11, one week after he’d insisted it would be a great year, Swartz woke up despondent—lower than Stinebrickner-Kauffman had ever seen him. “I tried everything to get him up,” she says. “I turned on music, I opened the windows, I tickled him.” Eventually he got up and got dressed, and Stinebrickner-Kauffman thought he was going to come with her to her office. But instead, Swartz said he was going to stay home and rest. He needed to be alone. “And I asked him why he had gotten dressed,” says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “But he didn’t answer.”

That afternoon, Peters started reading through some of the evidence that the prosecution had handed over in late December. As he read, he became more and more excited about Swartz’s chances at the Jan. 25 suppression hearing. “If we had won that motion and suppressed the fruits of their search, they wouldn’t have had a lot of the evidence they had planned to use at trial,” he says. “I ran down the hall, saying ‘Look at this! Look at all this!’ ”


Peters put the new evidence in his briefcase and got in his car. As he drove, he got a call from Bob Swartz. Aaron had committed suicide.

*     *     *

It’s been almost a month since Swartz hanged himself, and the initial shock has hardened into something sharper. “I’ve become so much angrier since he died,” says Wikler.

That sentiment is a common one. Swartz’s family, friends, and supporters are almost unanimous in saying that his suicide took them entirely by surprise. They do not believe Swartz was clinically depressed—he was moody and occasionally melodramatic, maybe, but not depressed. “I’ve researched clinical depression and associated disorders. I’ve read their symptoms, and at least until the last 24 hours of his life, Aaron didn’t fit them,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote in a Feb. 4 blog post. “Depression is often like a bottle of ink in the bottom of your fish tank, and just everything is going to get colored black and impenetrable, no matter what goes in there,” says Wikler. “And Aaron wasn’t like that. Aaron was almost completely transparent.”

Those closest to Swartz also agree on who’s to blame for his death. “The government and MIT killed my son,” said Robert Swartz at Aaron’s funeral. Lawrence Lessig—who wrote in 2011 that Aaron’s alleged actions, if true, were “ethically wrong”—argued that he’d been “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.”

The truth is surely more complicated. The circumstances of Swartz's life resist easy description, and his death is no different. But if Swartz’s supporters believe they understand why he committed suicide, it’s been harder for them to reach a consensus on another question: What now?

Swartz’s memorial services and countless online tributes have served as platforms for suggesting how to honor his legacy: reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, facilitate open access to academic journals, use public records laws to unshackle government information. The Anonymous collective, for its part, hacked MIT on the night of Jan. 13, taking the school’s network down with a denial-of-service attack and posting a list of “Our wishes.” Among those wishes: “reform of computer crime laws,” “reform of copyright and intellectual copyright law,” and “a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with a equality of access and franchise for all.” (MIT is now conducting an internal investigation of its role in the Swartz affair. The man leading the investigation, MIT professor Hal Abelson, is a founding director of Creative Commons and sits on the board of Richard Stallman’s Free Software Foundation.)

The debate over Swartz’s legacy is to be expected, perhaps even celebrated. Swartz did what he believed in and pushed everyone around him to do the same. But how could anyone agree on how to continue his mission when he’d worked on such a huge, varied collection of projects?

“There's an old joke among programmers about who will maintain the code when its author gets hit by a truck,” Swartz wrote in 2002, in a blog post describing what should be done with his work in the event of his untimely death. He said that he wanted to keep his code up and accessible, as a sort of living memorial of what he stood for while alive, and what his efforts were worth.

What was Aaron Swartz’s work worth, in the end? Half the websites he created as a child are defunct. They now exist only as ghosts, cached and stored by Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive. The Info Network is gone. The Chicago Force Star Wars fan club has changed its website. RSS 1.0 has fallen out of use; soon after its release, it was eclipsed by the competing RSS 2.0 standard. Both of these were in turn outdone by a new format called Atom. Infogami flopped. Jottit flopped. Reddit only became popular years after Swartz left. The funding for watchdog.net didn't get renewed. The Semantic Web never caught on.

So what did he really accomplish, this restless, moody polymath who failed to finish half the things he started? Swartz had his successes, to be sure. He played a crucial role in stopping SOPA, and Creative Commons and Demand Progress carry on as the purest embodiments of his deeply held beliefs regarding open access and free culture.

But more often than not, Swartz was forced to reckon with failure. He had no interest in solving easy problems. He wanted to organize the world, despite the world being a really messy place. He wanted to reform systems but became despondent when, again and again, they resisted his efforts. “I remember this conversation I had with him about some of the times when it didn’t work out in some of his collaborations with other people,” says his friend Nathan Woodhull. “I think in a lot of ways, people just didn't live up to his expectations. He had this vision, and to actually make it, we just couldn’t do things on the level that it needed to get done.”

There would be more people like Aaron Swartz if our schools and corporations and governments were configured to produce people like Aaron Swartz—if they were flexible and responsive and individualized, if they encouraged collaboration and individual initiative, if they pushed everyone to pursue their passions and their principles.

But that’s not how large systems work. The idealists will always be a minority, the few who care enough to try to perfect a world that will never be perfected.

In the 1980s, Richard Stallman saw his friends abandoning their ideals to go off and make money working on proprietary computer code. Rather than join them, he chose a different path. He founded the Free Software Foundation and practiced what he preached. Stallman continues to take the path of greatest resistance.

Swartz and Stallman at Wikimania in the summer of 2006.
Swartz and Stallman at Wikimania in the summer of 2006.

Courtesy of Jacob Rus

What were Stallman’s efforts worth? Well, most people still use Windows and Mac OS, so, if you look at it that way, not much. But Stallman inspired Lawrence Lessig and a precocious kid named Aaron Swartz who carried a Free Software Foundation membership card in his wallet, hosted a PDF copy of a collection of Stallman’s essays on his website, and once, after seeing Stallman speak at a conference, wrote that Stallman was the sort of person he could see himself being.

In the month after his death, Swartz's idealism has started to spread. The Internet makes it easy for anyone to play at being an activist—it only takes a second to re-tweet a petition. Swartz demanded more, arguing that we should all structure our lives around what we believe is important rather than what’s most remunerative.

Not long after he died, Swartz’s friends launched a memorial website where anyone could leave a comment reflecting on his life and work. The contributions from those close to him have been outnumbered by ones from total strangers—people from around the world who had never met Swartz, and some who had never even heard of him before he passed away.

“It is unfortunate that such a brilliant and passionate person [died] in such a tragic way,” wrote someone named Jason, in a brief, heartfelt requiem titled “We Must Make Changes.” He continued:

Our judicial system is broken, our education system is broken, our society is broken! If we all don’t do something to fix these things Aaron will not be the last one persecuted to the point of hopelessness. It is my sincere hope that something positive can come out of this loss and some of the broken things in our society can be fixed. I plan on doing something towards Aaron’s cause everyday. If we all do the same maybe we can make a difference, if not for ourselves but for Aaron and generations to come.

When he lived in Massachusetts, Swartz would compete in the MIT Mystery Hunt, an annual weekend-long puzzle-solving marathon. Exactly one week after Swartz died, on the day the 2013 Mystery Hunt kicked off, his old team hosted an ice cream social in his memory. A large banner was spread out on a table, on which friends and admirers wrote a long list of personalized messages: funny memories, words of condolence. Near the end of the night, a slender boy in a plain sweatshirt who looked too young to be there came over to the table. He uncapped a marker. He wrote, simply, “We will continue.”

Corrections, Feb. 9, 2013: This article originally misstated Aaron Swartz’s age when he met Seth Schoen. He was 15, not 14.  It also stated that Lisa Rein was a programmer who helped build the Creative Commons website. Rein helped create the licensing metadata used on the site.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.

  Slate Plus
Plus Roundups
March 5 2015 11:29 AM What We Like Right Now Our favorite picks for the week of March 2, curated by Slate writers and editors.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
March 6 2015 8:08 AM The Man Who Discovered Thiamin Today, we take vitamin B1 for granted. But it took a horrible, wasting disease—and lots and lots of chickens—for scientists to discover it.