Last January, Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old computer prodigy and an activist for open information, hanged himself in his New York City apartment. Swartz suffered from depression and was reportedly despondent over a criminal case that Carmen Ortiz had brought against him for downloading millions of academic articles at MIT without authorization.
Swartz, who co-founded Reddit and helped develop the RSS standard, had done nothing with the articles. JSTOR, the company whose servers he had targeted, declined to press charges. But Ortiz pursued him zealously, putting out a public statement threatening him with 35 years in prison. After his death, she let it be known that he faced “only” six months behind bars if he’d pled guilty.
Ortiz may have decided to make an example of Swartz because of his outspokenness about oppressive copyright enforcement and related issues, which his MIT stunt was meant to illustrate. It wouldn’t be the first time she had demonstrated her contempt for free speech. Last year Ortiz received a Muzzle for her successful prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a vile propagandist for Al Qaeda whose activities should nevertheless have been protected by the First Amendment.
Yet even after his death Swartz succeeded in advancing the cause of openness. In May, The New Yorker unveiled Strongbox, software that would allow whistle-blowers to deposit leaked documents without being traced. Bradley Manning might never have gotten caught if it had been available to him, nor Edward Snowden if he’d chosen to use it.
The developer was Aaron Swartz.