Aaron Swartz: a beautiful mind
His mind raced as the taxi hurtled towards Brooklyn. Sam McLean had dropped in for drinks with mates at an office in SoHo, in Lower Manhattan and now, as the cab crossed the East River, he was assailed by a rising sense of unease.
The day had started badly. He'd been supposed to meet his friend Aaron Swartz for brunch, but his calls and texts had gone unanswered. Miffed, McLean had arranged with Swartz's Australian-American girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, for the gang to gather for dinner.
He did not commit suicide, he was killed by the government.
As national director of the Australian activist movement GetUp!, McLean, then 25, was on a Manhattan stopover after attending a retreat for online activists from around the world in Holmes, 80 kilometres north of New York City. There, the Online Progressive Engagement Networks (OPEN) had taken over a conference centre to "collectively dream and scheme about the future".
At about 7pm, McLean's mobile rang - a frantic call from Ben Margetts, another member of the Australian activist network in New York, insisting he get to the apartment Swartz shared with Stinebrickner-Kauffman urgently. Soon came another call, this time from an agitated Stinebrickner-Kauffman demanding to know how long he'd be.
Less than 10 minutes later, McLean piled out of the taxi into a rainy evening. Barrelling into the newish apartment block, he took the elevator to the seventh floor. The door was open and a stricken Stinebrickner-Kauffman, 32, and Margetts, 27, were standing outside. Swartz was inside, dead, they told him. When she got home that afternoon, his girlfriend had found him hanging by his belt from a window jamb. It was January 11, 2013.
Variously described as a genius, wunderkind and prodigy, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz had become a rock star in a burgeoning, global internet-based activist movement. From his early teens, he had bent an agile mind and a rare wizardry with computers to a self-appointed mission that he often, and perfectly seriously, described as saving the world.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, his girlfriend since 2011, had been so worried about what Swartz might do to himself that morning that she'd tried to prevent him going to the bathroom alone. Unable to reach him through the day, she was so filled with a sense of foreboding on her return to the apartment that as she rode up in the elevator, as she later told The New Yorker, she readied her mobile to be able to dial 911 immediately.
On entering, she found Swartz hanging from the window. He was still in the clothes he'd been wearing when she'd left that morning: black V-neck T-shirt, brown corduroy trousers and jacket. There was no suicide note.
Police and paramedics brought Swartz down from the window jamb and by the time McLean entered, the body had been zipped into a black bag. McLean grabbed a few things for the deeply shocked Stinebrickner-Kauffman and, with Margetts, they headed to the nearby home of another activist friend, American Ben Wikler.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide just two days after federal prosecutors in Boston had rejected his last bid to avoid jail time. Two years earlier, he'd been busted using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network to download almost 5 million documents ordinarily locked behind a pay-wall on one of the world's most preeminent scholarly archives, JSTOR - a conflation of "journal storage".
When the prosecutors hit Swartz with a raft of charges, under which he might have been jailed for decades, the plea-bargaining process became a stalemate. Swartz rejected any outcome that would brand him for life as a felon when he believed he'd committed no crime; prosecutors insisting, on the other hand, that he was guilty and must do time.
Simon Sheikh, the Canberra-based activist entrepreneur and a failed Greens candidate at the 2013 federal election, was also at the OPEN summit in upstate New York early last year. As McLean's predecessor at GetUp!, Sheikh had first reached out to Swartz the previous year. Swartz was then working for Avaaz, a relatively new, online, global activist movement drawing followers by the millions, and Sheikh had been keen to tap into its campaign inventiveness.
Later, he'd introduced Swartz to the leadership at ThoughtWorks, a privately owned company with a staff of thousands working across the globe to revolutionise software design for positive social change. In April 2012, the organisation snapped up Swartz as a software developer.
Both Sheikh and McLean spent time with Swartz in New York that went way beyond the pro-forma office appointments and conference interactions they might have expected. What was to be a one-hour meeting at the ThoughtWorks office on Madison Avenue, says Sheikh, became a talkfest on machine learning environments that went into the early hours of the next day and reconvened a day later at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
At Holmes, Swartz dragged McLean up to an attic room, where they huddled for hours as he shared his latest dramatic thinking. McLean remembers being struck by what he considered an oddly phrased afterthought. "He told me he had cracked his idea on how to change the world," McLean remembers. "And [he said] he would do it that year - or he would die."
Later, Swartz's collaborator at the Edmond J Safra Centre for Ethics at Harvard, law professor Lawrence Lessig, described his complex young friend in these terms: "Aaron was a hacker. But he was not just a hacker. He was an internet activist, but not just an internet activist. Indeed, the most important part of Aaron's life is the part that most run over too quickly - the last chunk, when he shifted his focus from this effort to advance freedom in the space of copyright, to an effort to advance freedom and social justice more generally."
Recently, when I track Sam McLean, now 27, to a beach house on the south coast of NSW, he tells me in a Skype video exchange: "We all can see the world one way and think that it should be another way, but most don't feel they have the agency and a responsibility to [change it]. Aaron believed he had both."
Simon Sheikh noticed a healthy tension when Swartz was in a room. "Even without speaking, he could communicate his disappointment with ideas that were not well formed and with people whose values did not match his own," he says. "His values were simple, clear, pure - and he wouldn't budge."
On the night Swartz died, McLean and the others set up a memorial website. Within days, there were tens of thousands of tributes from around the world. "Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was," wrote an introspective John Atkinson. "I am a bright technologist, but I've never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I've never acted to bring them to pass ... If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely."
'HE WAS HUMAN'
Aaron Swartz, the eldest of three sons, was born in 1986 to bookish parents Robert and Susan in affluent Highland Park, 30 kilometres north of Chicago. By the age of three, he'd taught himself to read. Robert, a 63-year-old computer consultant, remembers his son as an exceptionally bright, inquisitive boy who picked up things quickly.
Aaron grew up with the internet - and was fascinated by it. "He was interested in computers because they were interesting - not because he might go off to Silicon Valley to become another Mark Zuckerberg," Robert tells me recently when we meet at his Chicago office-workshop.
Robert and Susan didn't worry when, complaining of being bored, Aaron opted to drop out of high school after year 9. "I had felt the same thing at school, so it didn't surprise me at all," says the father now. But his parents did worry about his health. All his life, Aaron had suffered from debilitating bouts of ulcerative colitis, a digestive malady with similar symptoms to Crohn's disease. He ate only "white" foods - cheese, bread, rice, eggs, pasta, and tofu and cheese pizza. His friend Ben Wikler tells a story of Swartz coming to dinner and eating nothing but bread because he did not want to burden his hosts with his dietary demands.
Swartz hated to impose himself on others. In the days before he died, he was hugely stressed by the realisation he would have to ask others to help fund his legal defence. Similarly, he was acutely uncomfortable in dealing with the likes of waiters and cabbies because of the power imbalance he perceived in his relationship with them.
As a boy, Swartz insinuated himself into online internet hacking workshops, stunning older collaborators with his computing genius. In photos from back then, first as a 12-year-old and then through his early teens, he can be seen in his trademark ill-fitting T-shirts, sometimes looking like the tag-along child of an adult participant.
Among other projects, Swartz designed a Wikipedia-like site called The Info Network, which was selected as a finalist in the prestigious ArsDigita contest for teen programmers. He then launched watchdog.net, an online political activist website. By the age of 14, he was already considered "a figure in the industry", sharing the heavy-lifting in a team that invented the RSS format that updates websites - news reports, blogs and the like. At 15, he became a co-founder of the Creative Commons copyright-sharing organisation.
Just as he had dropped out of high school, he also quit Stanford University after his freshman year. On day 58, he blogged: "Kat and Vicky want to know why I eat breakfast alone reading a book, instead of talking to them. I explain to them that however nice and interesting they are, the book is written by an intelligent expert and filled with novel facts. They explain to me that not sitting with someone you know is a major social faux pas and not having a need to talk to people is just downright abnormal. I patiently suggest that it is perhaps they who are abnormal ... They patiently suggest I'm being offensive and best watch myself if I don't want to alienate the few remaining people who still talk to me."
At 19, he moved to Cambridge, near Boston in Massachusetts, where he co-founded Reddit, the social news and entertainment website accessed by millions, which was subsequently acquired by Condé Nast Publications in October 2006. Afterwards, he was required to move to California to work in the office of the Condé Nast-owned Wired magazine, an arrangement that had been a condition of the Reddit buyout. He hated the demands of his conventional new job and on his first day at Wired locked himself in a bathroom and cried. "I was miserable," he said later. "I couldn't stand office life. I couldn't stand Wired." He told a flatmate he was heading back to Boston because San Francisco didn't have enough books.
From his new base, Swartz launched OpenLibrary, a vast online book and data repository that these days is accessed free of charge by millions. After that, he co-designed Strongbox, by which sources could anonymously drop documents to The New York Times without fear of disclosure, then SecureDrop, which allowed whistleblowers to communicate with journalists without revealing their identity. He also founded Demand Progress, an online activist website.
The thread running through all his endeavours was a passion for computers, online freedom and freedom of information. Its ultimate expression was his obsession with the web as a vehicle for social and political campaigning - especially his leadership role in a 2012 campaign that spectacularly defeated a bid by Hollywood and the music industry to have Washington rubber-stamp the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, which activists claimed would severely curtail internet freedom.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who became romantically involved with Swartz just weeks before he was formally charged, laid out for reporters what she described as a finely honed aesthetic sense: "[Aaron] could get deeper, truer joy [than anyone I've met] out of a perfect corn muffin, a brilliantly constructed narrative arc, a beautiful font." But she added, "He was human. He wasn't happy at every moment and I'd be the first to say he could be a real pain to live with."
Certainly, as the JSTOR case began to gather momentum, those around him noticed signs of growing paranoia. His friend Alec Resnick recalled sitting in a car-share vehicle with Swartz, who would insist on putting all their electronic devices outside it and turning up the radio volume, to guard against eavesdropping. Soon after his arrest, he proposed setting up his Linux server to record any sounds at the door so he'd know if "they" were coming. Worried by prosecutors' bully-boy tactics, his lawyers warned them that Swartz had become a suicide risk.
Swartz's death brought dramatic focus to a global insurgency war in which information is power and the battlefield is the net. In the words of Glenn Greenwald - the former Guardian journalist who reported on much of the Edward Snowden disclosures on the reach of Washington's global and domestic spying network - this is a "war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it, and [Swartz's] real crime in the eyes of the US government [was that he] challenged its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information."
While at a conference of hackers held in Eremo, Italy, in 2008, Swartz was one of a group of activists who wrote what became known as the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. Running to just 600 words, it begins: "Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves." It ends with this exhortation: "There is no justice in following unjust laws ... We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world."
Swartz was putting this manifesto into practice when he hacked into JSTOR in 2010. First, he created a script to download JSTOR documents, then he hardwired his new laptop into the MIT network from a closet in a building on the Boston campus. Using a fake profile, he programmed the laptop to suck in a motherload of information over a period of months.
Swartz dodged efforts by MIT's cyber security team to shut him down while he downloaded almost 5 million documents, nearly the entire JSTOR archive. Unknown to him, however, the campus cyber sleuths were able to locate the laptop and to train a surveillance camera on the closet to record his comings and goings.
He was arrested on January 6, 2011, after abandoning his bicycle and attempting to escape on foot in a street near the Harvard University campus in Cambridge. Later, when Aaron and his father Robert went to collect the abandoned bicycle from the MIT campus police, an officer told them he was keeping Aaron's USB drive. "It's all in the hands of the Secret Service now," he told them. Robert can't now remember which of them asked, as they walked away, "What's the Secret Service involved for?"
This wasn't Aaron Swartz's first such caper. In 2006, Swartz had got his hands on the Library of Congress's bibliographic dataset, access to which ordinarily required payment of a fee. Swartz made it available free on his OpenLibrary and got away with it - because, as a government-owned document, the dataset was without copyright.
By 2008, the year in which he helped write the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, he'd become more daring. Exploiting a government trial that allowed limited online access to court documents, he moved almost 3 million of them from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records website to offer them free outside the usual costly and cumbersome system of access. The FBI opened an investigation that went nowhere. Again, these were public documents without copyright.
Swartz might have thought he was nipping through a similar loophole with the JSTOR material. The MIT network was open to all on campus, so he wasn't hacking the system. And as a research fellow at nearby Harvard, where he was studying political corruption, he had legitimate access to JSTOR, which charges institutions such as MIT as much as $50,000 a year for access. Further, there was no real complainant. As soon as the data was returned to JSTOR, the archive's management refused to co-operate with authorities.
It has never been clear what Swartz planned to do with the JSTOR files. Had he made the download just to make a point? It is almost certain, given his ideology, that he didn't intend to personally profit from it. The initial reaction of Massachusetts state prosecutors suggested that here was a stunt in keeping with a colourful history of student pranks at MIT. They were examining the possibility of a simple breaking-and-entering charge when they were elbowed aside by their federal counterparts.
This time, the Feds ignored the copyright issue. Instead, they went for Swartz under a much-criticised 1980s statute, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), alleging he had accessed a "protected computer" and had done so "without authorisation". Despite the "victimless" nature of the case, Washington's chief prosecutor in Boston, Carmen Ortiz, defended the severity of the charges. "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," she declared. "It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."
Initially, Swartz was indicted on four charges: wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging the protected computer. He could have gone down for 35 years and been fined $US1 million but, despite the seriousness implied in all that, prosecutors were set to bargain it away to just six months in jail - if he would plead guilty.
Swartz was horrified. Jail would be awful enough, but he couldn't countenance having the career-destroying term "convicted felon" permanently attached to his résumé. When he baulked in the negotiations, the prosecutors doubled down, belting him with another raft of charges under which he would face 50 years inside.
The bulk of these charges were under the CFAA, a law so badly written that in 2012, Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit Court ridiculed prosecutors in a similar case: "Under the government's proposed interpretation of the CFAA ... describing yourself as 'tall, dark and handsome' [on a dating website] when you're actually short and homely will earn you [jail time]." In an era of hacker threats to corporate and government websites and mainframes, it seemed Federal authorities wanted to make an example of Swartz.
"Aaron did not commit suicide, he was killed by the government," his father said at the time of his death. When I meet him in Chicago, he elaborates: "The response of the prosecutors was totally out of proportion compared to what he had done."
He characterises the prosecution as "cruel, vindictive, sadistic" and later ticks off the names of the key characters in the drama - Carmen Ortiz, US Attorney General Eric Holder and MIT president Rafael Reif. "They all say they acted appropriately; none has said they made a mistake."
The opposing reactions of the two revered academic institutions involved was also vexing for the Swartz family. Why would MIT sit on its hands, seemingly happy to leave Swartz to the mercy of prosecutors determined to make an example of him, when JSTOR was determined to make it known it did not want to see him in the dock?
The stark contrast between the two performances was on public view two days before Swartz died, when JSTOR announced that all the files he had downloaded would become available free over the internet. Forty-eight hours later, the archive's management acknowledged Swartz as "a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit".
Describing the JSTOR download as "like a pie in the face" - by which he meant annoying for the victim but of no lasting consequence - Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu invoked the names of "two other eccentric geniuses": Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. "In the 1970s, [they] committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz's," he wrote. "Those two men hacked AT&T's telephone system to make free long-distance calls and actually sold the illegal devices [to others] to make money ... Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted [and] instead got bored ... and built a computer. The great ones always operate at the edge."
BEFORE THE STORM
In January 2013, Swartz was excited about the future of the web as a campaign tool - and what organisations such as his Demand Progress and Australia's GetUp! might achieve. Invigorated by the success of the campaign to derail the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), he wanted to map out a new age of citizen power. He warned in his SOPA victory speech: "It will happen again. Sure, it will have another name, and maybe another excuse, and it will do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared."
In his attic meeting with McLean during the OPEN summit at Holmes, Swartz had sketched the contours of a new order, in which he envisaged corporate power being severely weakened and political parties replaced by internet-based people power. In contrast to efforts by activists such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who sought to reduce state power that derived from secrecy, Swartz's objective was to build citizen power to counter that of governments and corporations. He revealed a grand design by which he envisaged artificial intelligence making activists such as himself and McLean redundant.
"He knew it had to be big enough to combat that kind of [corporate] power," McLean recalls. "The idea was Fordian, as in mass production. Being able to automate or to build computer intelligence around numbers of increasing scale and power. He was working on an intelligent logarithm - artificial intelligence - to devolve leadership to lower organisational levels.
"His argument was that we'll have to fight more SOPA-style campaigns. So we need an algorithm or computer program that would encourage lots of people to identify the fights and to start the campaigns. We'd put the tools that we have at our disposal in their hands."
The following evening, Thursday, January 10, Swartz was one of a small group at Spitzer's Corner, a bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The technologist and blogger Andy Baio, 36, reported seeing a seemingly happy Swartz who was "deep in conversation, smiling and chatting".
"denial is a wonderful thing, but it wears off," Robert Swartz tells me. "I can distract myself and make it seem like it didn't happen but, as time goes by, reality becomes more strange."
He dwells on his son's pain: "I miss Aaron terribly. It was incredibly hard on him. He was devastated and it made him sick. You could see the stress he was under." In sidestepping the drudgery of school and college, is it possible Aaron missed an opportunity to acquire skin that might have served as an extra layer of protection in life? Was he less resilient for having missed these rites of passage? "This may have happened," Robert allows.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, now the founder and director of SumOfUs, a San Francisco-based corporate and government watchdog group, declined to be interviewed for this story, but told The Guardian last year, "I think I understand how it happened, [but] the biggest problem with the decision is that it's permanent. Other dumb decisions, you can usually recover from."
I ask Sam McLean if there was an inflexibility in Swartz's temperament, by which he couldn't face doing what he didn't want to do, and McLean tweaks the construct: it was more about Swartz not being able to do what he so wanted to do. "Perhaps his excitement and suicide were sides of the same coin - every goal he believed he could and must achieve was also something he might not be able to achieve," he ventures. "It was a sword of Damocles. He knew all of his plans could be kyboshed by a ridiculous law and a petty prosecutor."
What is it like now on the activist ramparts without his friend? "It's scary without Aaron," says McLean. "We relied on him to be brilliant."