Suicide of Aaron Swartz

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.
English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few “ordinary people” have probably heard of Aaron Swartz, though the chances are most internet users interact with his ideas every day – he co-authored the “really simple syndication” (RSS) specification, at the core of any sort of internet headline reader, when he was just 14.

The news today, though, is grim. As yesterday, 11 January, he killed himself.

I never met him – why would I – and he sounds like he was a highly strung and difficult individual (it is no accident that genius and madness are so often associated) but surely we should all be disturbed that his suicide comes after he pursued by federal authorities in the US – and threatened with time in jail – for breaking the terms of use of a website!

Now, we all see these “terms of use” every day – but how many of us have read them? And how many would feel it justified to send someone to jail for breaking them?

Of course, Swartz’s behaviour was reckless – he “spidered” (ie., indexed and stored) many millions of articles on the JSTOR site – which sells academic articles. Most postgraduate students and university staff reading this will have JSTOR access I am sure – it’s a huge boon and no doubt makes a lot of money (universities pay a block-fee for staff and student access, others pay per article) – some (though a long way from all) goes into supporting academic work in one way or another.

Swartz also did this by hacking (in both the positive and negative forms) – spoofing his MAC address, plugging his laptop directly into the MIT network and so on. Chances are that he planned to release the articles into the wild – an illegal and likely utterly irreversible act. But he had not done that when he was arrested and nor is there any sign whatsoever of a conspiracy to do that. So, yes, the worst “crime” he had committed was to have breached JSTOR’s terms of use (which specifically prohibit spidering on the site).

Maybe he might have won his case – certainly he probably stood a good chance of beating any subsequent conviction on appeal – but it seems that “pre-crime” was applied for the benefit of those seek to maintain a false scarcity in ideas and the consequences – on the first look – seem to have been grim.

Now, there could be benefits in maintain such a false scarcity – obviously we should have a copyright (and patent) regime that protects innovation and makes (say) the storage of petabytes of academic articles a worthwhile pursuit. But it is difficult to avoid the sense that the state sees only one interest in these debates and the commons gets screwed.

One more point: It is good style to avoid saying someone “committed suicide” unless it really is still a crime in your jurisdiction. I know it feels odd to avoid that term but it lingers from a time when we really did throw people in jail for having tried to kill themselves as opposed to offering them the help they need.