WORTH REPEATING: Being Aaron Swartz


THE NEW YORKER: Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his apartment in Brooklyn on January 11th. He was twenty-six, but he had been well known as a computer programmer for many years. At the age of fourteen, he helped to develop the RSS software that enables the syndication of information over the Internet. At fifteen, he e-mailed one of the leading theorists of Internet law, Lawrence Lessig, and helped to write the code for Lessig’s Creative Commons, which, by writing alternatives to standard copyright licenses, allows people to share their work more freely. At nineteen, he was a developer of Reddit, one of the world’s most widely used social-networking news sites.

After Reddit was sold, to Condé Nast, he turned away from money-making start-ups and became a political activist. He spoke often at technology conferences and activist gatherings, and was admired in both those worlds. Since his death, he has become a hero to programmers who have not turned away from money but wish they had, and to those who believe that governments are crushing what was once the freedom of the Internet. When Anonymous hacked the State Department Web site on February 17th, they declared, “Aaron Swartz this is for you.”

Two years ago, he was indicted on multiple felony counts for downloading several million articles from the academic database JSTOR. It is not clear why he did this. He may have wanted to analyze the articles, or he may have intended to upload them onto the Web, so they could be accessed by anyone. It is clear that he did not anticipate the astonishing severity of the legal response. He did not consider his JSTOR action an act of civil disobedience for which he was prepared to sacrifice a portion of his life in prison. It was not a project that was particularly important to him. There had been a time when he cared deeply about copyright issues, but he had moved on. MORE

RELATED: The US attorney general has defended the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the internet activist who killed himself after being targeted for hacking into the computer system of MIT. After Swartz’s suicide in January, his family and friends accused the Department of Justice of cracking down too hard on him. At the time of his death, Swartz, 26, was facing a potential prison sentence and felony charges for allegedly illegally accessing articles from a database. In a Senate judiciary committee hearing on Wednesday, Holder expressed sympathy to Swartz family and friends but said the case was a “good use of prosecutorial discretion.” MORE

RELATED: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows. The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington’s biggest white shoe law firms.  MORE

RELATED: Attorney General Eric Holder said the Obama administration was “still considering” the federal response to voter-approved marijuana legalization laws in Washington and Colorado. Given the chance by Senate Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy to make an announcement, Holder said a response would be coming soon. Leahy, citing cuts to the Justice Department under sequestration, added: “I would suggest there are more serious things than minor possession of marijuana. That’s a personal view.” MORE