Justice for Aaron Swartz. Protest Carmen Ortiz and MIT

I'm so sorry that what's-his-name is dead but my political ambitions are so very important to me.

I’m so sorry that what’s-his-name is dead but my political ambitions are  very important to me.

Aaron Swartz is dead. Federal Attorney Carmen Ortiz engaged in stomach-turning prosecutorial overreach. MIT could have pulled back but deliberately choose not to. Both share responsibility for his suicide.

Most conspicuously, there is the Obama administration, and its deep pocket contributors in the high tech, publishing and entertainment industries who have attempted to make what they call the “theft” and what Swartz regarded as the liberation of intellectual property a crime meriting the most severe punishment. A ridiculously disproportionate 35 year sentence was being aggressively pursued by Massachusetts Federal Attorney, Carmen Ortiz who likely viewed the prosecution as an opportunity to raise her profile within the party. The strategy seemed to be working: Massachusetts Governor and close friend of Obama Deval Patrick mentioned her as a likely successor.

It should be our job to ensure that Ms. Ortiz’s cynical calculation will not pay off. A petition demanding her removal from office is being circulated and should be signed, though this is a bare minimum. Demonstrations at her office should become routine and her public appearances should be greeted with conspicuous displays of opposition. Should she receive the nomination for governor, or any other position in the future, those honoring Schwartz’s memory should pledge to nominate, finance, and actively support a third party candidate who can benefit from the legitimate outrage at Ortiz’ exercise in prosecutorial over-reach and extreme Democratic Party triangulation.

Over the dead body of the internet activism will Carmen Ortiz have a future in politics. Internet activists have far more power than she ever will and they don’t forget, especially not in a sickening case of apparent selective and grotesque prosecution for personal political gain.

The other target, MIT, is not used to having the light of publicity affixed to it, but it is well deserved. As the Swartz’s family notes, by filing charges when the primary victim JSTOR refused to do so, MIT’s acquiesence was required for the federal prosecution to proceed.

MIT’s role here has been as bottom-dwelling, cynical, and sleazy as Ortiz’s.

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  • I’m having some real trouble with the way this story is being spread. Very early on accusatory fingers got pointed in two directions:

    (1) Swartz allegedly “wrestled with depression”, a vague suggestion that he was killed by some impersonal (but psychologically devastating) illness.

    (2) Swartz was driven to suicide by a mean, self-promoting prosecutor and her accomplices in the administration of MIT.

    In either event we’re encouraged to regard his death as a kind of martyrdom for some vaguely specified “information wants to be free” agenda. (This may or may not be how he himself thought of dying; it doesn’t matter to my point.)

    I hate this popular telling of the story because is it completely ignores the middle aged male svengalis who brought the pretty 13 year old boy to the dance of tech industry celebrity, only to turn their back on him, defame him, and even drive him out of a job as soon as the blush was off the rose.

    Going down his Wikipedia page and adding some notes of my own:

    At the very crest of the dot-com boom there is Philip Greenspun, emerging millionaire. The company he founded was building “community backed” web sites for clients, just before the big crash. That company, ArsDigita, spun off a publicity generating competition with cash money prizes encouraging teenagers to crank out their own “community backed” web sites.

    13 year Swartz takes a $1,000 winner-up prize home for building an application that showed off some software Greenspun was trying to sell to grown-ups. Two years later ArsDigita had abandoned the prize program that promoted their products using volunteer labor from teen-agers but Swartz was part of their pitch: “Well, a 12-year-old in Chicago managed to do it. With your bachelor’s in computer science and team of assistants I hope that you’ll also be able to get everything working.”

    Shortly thereafter, Dave Winer picked a fight with Netscape Inc. over the emerging standard for RSS. It was a power play — a fight between Netscape Inc. and UserLand/Dave Winer over who was to be recognized by the public as the legitimate authority to determine the technical details of how RSS worked.

    Swartz, now all of 14, was a newly minted celebrity on Winer’s team.

    So it is around this time, 2001 to be more specific, that Winer gushed: “Aaron is the brightest 13 year old I’ve ever met on the Internet, Winer wrote in February 2001. “It’s not just bit smarts, he marshals power very well and is persistent. Eventually you come around to his way of thinking, or he comes around to yours. These are the essential ingredients in good technology. We’re looking for the right answer, not to be proven right, or to prove the other guy wrong.”

    Here is that same Dave Winer two years later, when Swartz is 16 or 17: “Aaron Swartz asks an “honest question” in public about why I’m so angry with Tim Bray. [….] Now, imho, Aaron’s question is probably not very honest. He’s a young guy who likes to flame. He’s gotten a rep for being a software genius, but that’s mostly with lawyers, not software people. He’s a politician, and not a good one, and not a very nice person. He’s treated me like crap for years, and child or not, I’m tired of it, and I’m not taking it anymore. When he bites, I’m going to bite back, so watch out Aaron.”

    In 2001 Winer is selling the kid who has more than just “bit smarts”. By 2003, Winer is telling everyone who will listen that not only is Swartz not all that smart but is also a huge jerk.

    So that’s 2003. Included here is a photo from 2002 of Winer enduring that “abuse” from 15 year old Swartz. I hope people will click through. Winer is in the second photo sitting at a table next to Swartz. The picture above that is Swartz with the photographer, professional celebrity Doc Searles. The shot at the table is from a for-profit conference at which Swartz was serving as a kind of mascot while himself being charmed by these older celebrities.

    A picture is worth a 1000 words and here is the boy in 2001, helping to launch Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons project. In his rememberance on the occaision of Swartz’s suicide, Lessig urges us to blame the prosecutor (and Swartz himself) but also wants us to know what a true friend to Swartz he was even though he abandoned defending Swartz from these charges, choosing his obligations to Harvard over his obligations to the boy.

    We’re up to about 17 here. He had been dragged into the limelight by a corporately sponsored dot-com bubble era prize. He’d been on a whirlwind tour of tech conferences, meeting with tech celebrities. He had his name attached to widely discussed projects and was commonly identified in the tech press as sime kind of teen role model prodigy. And now his new found friends were losing interest and even (as is the case with Winer) turning outright hostile.

    He spends a year at Stanford before once again becoming a mascot for somebody’s launch campaign. This time, in 2005, he drops out to be help launch the Y Combinator start-up summer camp program. His new friend is Paul Graham. Graham and the other Y Combinator founders suggest that Swartz’s company merge with another Y Combinator start-up, Reddit. They do. Reddit is soon thereafter sold to Conde-Nast and, in the aftermath, Swartz forced out of the company.

    A year later, in 2006, Swartz makes a failed run for the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Directors. His campaign (says the Wikipedia article) argued that the most active and powerful editors at Wikipedia had a role more ministerial than creative in its utility.

    In 2009 Swartz had a new professional celebrity friend, Carl Malamud and (again, per Wikipedia) allegedly engaged in his first of two famous acts of civil disobedience (downloads and liberation of electronic PACER documents). The second alleged act, the JSTOR incident, hit the fan in 2011. By that time he was an “Internet activist”, by which I suspect the author politely meant “unemployed”.

    So I don’t quite buy this “blame the prosecutor” approach and I certainly don’t think it anything other than tautological to observe that Swartz must have been depressed. The problem is that continuously line of exploitation — vaguely pedophiliac in the early days — of a socially naive boy thrust into celebrity and actively used then shunned by one famous “friend” after another.

    Professional celebrity Corry Doctorow wrote:

    I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.

    But he was also unmistakably a kid then, too. He would only eat white food. We’d go to a Chinese restaurant and he’d order steamed rice. I suggested that he might be a supertaster and told him how to check it out, and he did, and decided that he was. We had a good talk about the stomach problems he faced and about how he would need to be careful because supertasters have a tendency to avoid “bitter” vegetables and end up deficient in fibre and vitamins. He immediately researched the hell out of the subject, figured out a strategy for eating better, and sorted it. The next time I saw him (in Chicago, where he lived — he took the El a long way from the suburbs to sit down and chat with me about distributed hash caching), he had a whole program in place.

    I introduced him to Larry Lessig, and he was active in the original Creative Commons technical team, and became very involved in technology-freedom issues. Aaron had powerful, deeply felt ideals, but he was also always an impressionable young man, someone who often found himself moved by new passions. He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to.

    This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors. And it’s a testament to Aaron’s intellect, heart, and friendship that he was always forgiven for this. Many of us “grown ups” in Aaron’s life have, over the years, sat down to talk about this, and about our protective feelings for him, and to check in with one another and make sure that no one was too stung by Aaron’s disappointment in us. I think we all knew that, whatever the disappointment that Aaron expressed about us, it also reflected a disappointment in himself and the world.

    Hey, at least those “rejected mentors” looked out for one another’s feelings.

    • We all have a life story – some are more interesting than others. The fact of the matter is, Aaron Swartz was looking at a long prison term. The punishment did not fit the crime. The blame rests squarely on the prosecutor’s shoulder.

      • He faced the possibility, not at all the certainty of a long sentence. Acquittal of felony charges wasn’t even off the map. We’ll never know what his lawyer might have said to him behind closed doors but, today at least, his lawyer is telling the press he thinks Swartz could have won.

        To me, it seems to insult Swartz to suggest he killed himself rather than fight the charges.

          • Matt, I don’t see anything in those sources that contradicts my account.

            Also I’m not much of anybody, sure, but I’m not just “some guy” on the Internet on this particular issue. Swartz’s and my networks overlap a lot. Before I posted my original comment here I shared it with mutual peers and friends of the very people I criticize in that comment. I have close-up observational and some first-hand experience with the “tech celebrity” machine (and I’m a long-time critic). I guess what I wrote didn’t work well for a broader audience, though.

          • Perhaps if you had initially disclosed a personal connection to Swartz and co. your comments wouldn’t have come across as bitter sniping from the /. peanut galleries.

            Still seems a bit thoughtless and kinda sorta douche-y to me though, especially since the kid’s funeral is today. Critiquing people’s grieving processes like that is never cool.

  • From Daily Kos – Firing Swartz Prosecutors (TWO hackers have committed suicide on their watch): Why It’s Not Easy

    Yesterday, it became public that Stephen Heyman oversaw TWO excessive prosecutions of hacker-defendants who committed suicide, Aaron Swartz and Jonathan James.

    There are multiple petitions circulating on the Internet to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz and fire Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann. While I agree with the sentiment behind these petitions, and have signed them, it is unlikely that they will work, especially on Heymann who enjoys immunity and the protection of civil service laws. I think our energies might be better directed at demanding serious Congressional oversight and accounting for the selective, vindictive and overzealous prosecutions of hackers and whistleblowers.

    More at the link

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