Programmer/Internet Activist Aaron Swartz Faces Court; Commits Suicide at 26

In 2011, Aaron Swartz — a computer programmer and Internet activist who built Infogami, which merged with Reddit in 2006 — allegedly used the MIT campus network to download millions of journal articles from the JSTOR database — a digital library containing back issues of academic journals. He allegedly changed his laptop’s IP and MAC addresses when necessary to get around blocks put in place by JSTOR and MIT and physically accessed a closet to get a faster connection to the MIT network. For this actions, Aaron was facing criminal charges with penalties up to thirty-five years in prison, including the most serious charge of “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He was accused of illegally downloading millions of journal articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the intention of posting them to a file-sharing site.

On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, apartment of an apparent suicide by hanging. According to a family statement, the dread of the trial, the possibility of a 35-year prison sentence and a $1 million fine was too much for him.

“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable — these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter.”

— Swartz family statement statement in part read.

Aaron Swartz grew up in Winnetka and Highland Park, Illinois and gained computer expertise and vision that would lead to his Internet activism and development of software used by websites on the Internet.

While at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka — Swartz, then only 13-years-old — created an online public encyclopedia for a school competition. He was dedicated to generating freely accessible information on the Internet.

Along with developing, as a 14-year-old co-author, an early version of rich site summary, or RSS technology (also known as Really Simple Syndication), Swartz is credited with heavy involvement behind Reddit is a popular website that allows users to vote for their favorite news stories of the day. Reddit has a strong culture of free speech with few rules about the types of content that may be posted; however, it is criticized as including manipulating users, who tend to vote up or vote down news stories to generate popularity for their own (the manipulators’) websites. Also, some of the content has been criticized as it has involved pictures of dead bodies, sexual content related to minors and/or rape fantasies and other vile content. Many comments involve graphic language, attempts at humor, and insulting comments toward authors Condé Nast Publications, owner of Wired, acquired Reddit on October 31, 2006. Shortly thereafter, Swartz was fired.

Aaron Swartz keynote – “How we stopped SOPA” at F2C:Freedom to Connect 2012, Washington DC on May 21 2012.

Swartz founded Demand Progress, a lobbying group that advocates for civil liberties, opposing Internet censorship and government reform. Demand Progress has worked with other organizations, such as Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy and Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union, Fight for the Future. Swartz led a successful effort to oppose COICA, PIPA, and the Stop Online Piracy Act — a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, which sought to restrict access to websites that illegally shared copyrighted property. The bill was eventually withdrawn after widespread protests.

Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) was a bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) on September 20, 2010. It proposes amendments to Chapter 113 of Title 18 of the United States Code that would authorize the Attorney General to bring an in rem action against any domain name found “dedicated to infringing activities”, as defined within the text of the bill. Upon bringing such an action, and obtaining an order for relief, the registrar of, or registry affiliated with, the infringing domain would be compelled to “suspend operation of and lock the domain name.”

Demand Progress also opposes TSA scanning devices, the Internet kill switch (Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act), Censorship within Facebook, continuation of the Patriot Act, and modern debtors’ prisons.

Demand Progress supports whistleblowing, as in WikiLeaks.

The Motion Picture Association of America and the United States Chamber of Commerce have stated their opposition to Demand Progress on numerous occasions, mainly in respect to their stance on Internet censorship.

Swartz’s case tested the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1984 to reduce cracking of computer systems, by enhancing the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality.

Criminal offense under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act include …

Knowingly accessing a computer without authorization in order to obtain national security data

Intentionally accessing a computer without authorization to obtain:
– Information contained in a financial record of a financial institution, or contained in a file of a consumer reporting agency on a consumer

– Information from any department or agency of the United States; or

– Information from any protected computer.

Intentionally accessing without authorization a government computer and affecting the use of the government’s operation of the computer.

Knowingly accessing a protected computer with the intent to defraud and there by obtaining anything of value.

Knowingly causing the transmission of a program, information, code, or command that causes damage or intentionally accessing a computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, causes damage that results in:
– Loss to one or more persons during any one-year period aggregating at least $5,000 in value.

– The modification or impairment, or potential modification or impairment, of the medical examination, diagnosis, treatment, or care of one or more individuals.

– Physical injury to any person.

– A threat to public health or safety.

– Damage affecting a government computer system

Knowingly and with the intent to defraud, trafficking in a password or similar information through which a computer may be accessed without authorization.

Making changes in any information on the computer systems of the USA with the intention of misleading or hiding certain information.