Cyber Martyr

Article excerpt

Byline: Trevor Butterworth

The Tragedy of Aaron Swartz

In june 1954, Alan Turing, an architect of the digital age and a wartime code breaker extraordinaire, committed suicide. Deeply un happy, but also persecuted by the law for his sexual orientation, Turing left the world having given it the concept of a stored- memory computer and, barely 42, with uncounted years to build on that idea.

In Brooklyn, on Jan. 11, Aaron Swartz--a prodigy of the Internet age and an information theorist extraordinaire--committed suicide. By all accounts he was depressed, but he was also being pursued by federal prosecutors with near-manic vindictiveness, say supporters. His crime? Downloading millions of academic papers from a scholarly database in 2010 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--not for profit, but to argue that academic research, which could benefit mankind, should be freely available except when the copyright directly benefited the author.

Why, many are asking, did officials at the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office pursue Swartz as if he were the Che Guevara of the "information shall be free" movement? Was he really too dangerous a threat to intellectual property to be given community service--or to benefit from the leniency that MIT has routinely showed toward students with a liberal attitude toward downloading journal articles?

As Artemis Internet CTO Alex Stamos notes, infractions of a similar nature happened almost once a month at MIT. Moreover, JSTOR--the database in question--had reached a settlement with Swartz for just $2,000 and had retrieved all its data; it explicitly disavowed interest in any federal indictment, let alone one that listed 13 felonies and threatened 35 years in prison. …