The [Too] Brief History of Aaron Swartz, Robin Hood of Data

The new year is supposed to be an opportunity to start anew, but that doesn’t seem to be the case in the tech world.  In 2012, Megaupload was taken down by the feds and this year, Reddit co-founder, philanthropist, and hacktivist, Aaron Swartz committed suicide.

Swartz was facing 13 felony charges which include wire fraud, computer fraud, acquiring info on a protected computer and criminal forfeiture.  Four of the charges were filed in 2011 after it was uncovered that Swartz hacked MIT to access its nonprofit online service for distributing scholarly articles, JSTOR.  He allegedly downloaded an estimated 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR and wouldn’t have been caught if JSTOR’s system did not crash.  The additional charges were filed by Carmen M. Ortiz, District Attorney of Massachusetts.  Swarts was facing a $1 million fine and possibly 35 years in jail if found guilty.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” said Ms. Ortiz in the press release.

The Robin Hood of Data


Swartz’s actions were never meant to make him or his family rich.  He was considered a modern day Robin Hood, as he wanted to make the JSTOR academic articles accessible to everyone.  He was going to distribute the academic articles via file sharing sites, not sell them.  Same goes for the 2008 incident when he downloaded almost 20 percent of the entire database of court documents, which he plans on making public since federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers aren’t available online.  Swartz was supporting’s founder Carl Malamud’s call to upgrade the court archive system to become free and easy.

Swartz’s family saw him as a selfless man, blaming MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office for the tragic suicide, stating that intimidation and prosecutorial overreach occurred.   Being hounded took a great toll in Swartz’s emotional well-being – he was depressed.  The raw side of Swartz was seen in his blog posts.

A Cause Lost in the Blame Game


MIT was greatly affected by news that they were being blamed for Swartz’s suicide, so much so that it led to the appointment of Hal Abelson,  a founding director of Creative Commons, to head the investigation in MIT’s involvement in Swartz’s death.

A petition for the removal of Ortiz from office was filed by We the People, addressed to the Obama Administration.  The petition stated that Ortiz used powers granted by the office to hound Swartz into a position where he was facing 35 years in jail, and a million dollar fine even though the people who Swartz had allegedly wronged didn’t want to prosecute.  The petition needs 25,000 signatures by February 11, 2013, but as of writing, there are already 47,634 signatures.

Tom Dolan, the IBM exec husband of Ortiz, defended his wife on Twitter when news came out that Ortiz was being blamed for the suicide.  He stated that he can’t believe how his family blamed others for his actions, with no mention of how Swartz was offered a 6-month plea deal.

In Remembrance…


Aaron Swartz’s death is a tragedy, regardless of whether you see him as a villain or a hero.  What he wanted was transparency – the availability of data for everyone.  His cause was not lost when he died, as others continue to fight for what he believed in.

Aaron Greenspan, the entrepreneur and writer of the Lost Chapter, which details how Facebook was based on his company, houseSYSTEM, created a memorial grant of $10,000 in honor of Swartz and his efforts to promote transparency.

Anonymous paid its respect by defacing MIT’s site and threatened to derail the controversial Westboro Baptist Church’s picket line if they refused to back off.  Others made online memorials for Swartz where people can write their thoughts and sentiments about his passing or anything about him.  GitHub’s rememberaaronsw and Remember Aaron Swartz already have hundreds of comments from various people around the world.