Aaron Swartz

I was saddened today when a friend told me that Aaron Swartz had died. A committee of programmers had selected Aaron from among several hundred applicants and nominees for the ArsDigita Prize in the summer of 2000. Starting at age 12, Aaron had built an information system using the Oracle RDBMS and our open-source toolkit and the intent of the prize was to encourage and enable them to do more. Aaron was just 13 years old at the time and seemingly less than 5′ tall. Whenever anyone complained that our software and/or Oracle was too hard to install I would say “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.”

As a 14-year-old, Swartz worked with Dave Winer and other Weblog technology pioneers to co-author the RSS 1.0 specification. The experience so scarred Winer that he wrote a blog posting (I can’t find it now) saying that he was not going to talk to Aaron anymore. This led me to remark to a friend “Don’t let me complain about anyone in my blog unless he or she is at least 18 years old.” (for fear that I would be judged by the size/age of my enemies!)

My next interaction with Aaron was in the winter of 2005-2006 at Y Combinator where Aaron was part of the team building Reddit (Andrew Grumet and I were invited over there to offer advice to the 21-year-olds but everyone ignored us). Swartz wrote his own web.py framework for Python and explains his philosophy here.

In January 2007 I got an email from Rebecca, one of my MIT friends:

[Thanks for giving me a bottle of wine to take to the next party. I should have gotten my own…] But it was cold and I was already late, and didn’t have my cell phone with me to call ahead to get let in. Aaron Swartz (whose party it was. Remember him? Arsdigita Prize guy, the 13 year old who could set up the ACS all by himself) apparently has no doorbell, and assumes everyone has a cellphone, charged and with them at all times. Anyway, the resulting scene was worth it for the story alone: we were in the abandoned apartment of his old startup, which just got sold to Wired and made him rich at age 20. This apartment is a total hole, there’s nothing there, nobody brought anything except me. Aaron had some sugar cookies to entertain his guests with, but they hadn’t been baked yet, so they were still a roll of slice-and-bake sugar cookie dough. There’s nothing there, literally nothing, except this one bottle of wine, which I admitted to them is really yours and not even mine, so we all get out an incredible mismatched assortment of chipped shoestring-startup-style mugs and glasses and drink “Philip Greenspun’s wine,” and talk loudly about how we disagree with Lessig, how Javascript used to be an impossible pain but miraculously has become actually useful, how Aaron Swartz started using Mozilla at age 6, whether Google has lost their spark, and other such fantastically earnest geek party talk. The wine I had brought that wasn’t even mine completed the feeling. It made me happy.

I haven’t seen Swartz since those early Reddit days but he would occasionally email me to correct mistakes in my Weblog. Sometimes the mistakes were typos. At other times the mistakes, in Swartz’s view, were mental. In response to my “Economy Recovery Plan” of November 2008, Swartz wrote “Wow, this article is so ignorant of basic economics it deserves another email.” (America’s politicians apparently agreed with Swartz because in the 4+ years since I wrote that article they have done the exact opposite of what I suggested!) Swartz was a passionate Keynesian:

Let’s start at the beginning. Depressions are caused by a slight increase in people’s preference to hold onto cash, which causes a downward spiral where the economy slows and then people want to hold onto cash more.

The first thing you try to do in this instance is increase the money supply, but we’ve gone as far as we can go on that — the Fed has sent the interest rate to zero and it can’t go any lower.

So, as Keynes said, the second thing you try to do in that scenario is let government spending pick up the slack and take advantage of the productive capacity that isn’t being used on anything to get the economy moving again.

You claim this won’t work because “a lot more globalized today and there is much more competition among countries.” First, we’ve only recently caught up to the levels of international integration we had during the first wave of globalization, starting in 1870. Second, countries don’t compete with each other. The fundamental well-being of a country is determined by simply its domestic productivity. What would we be competing for?

You seem to suggest that we’re competing for international investment dollars. But then why do you think government investment won’t work? Why is international investment this magical thing we must attract to start businesses?

Swartz did not like my reviews/summaries of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (see “U.S. economy may not be tough enough to survive incompetent government” from July 2008; also “Parallels between our current economic times and the Great Depression” from July 2008 and “Black Unemployment”): “Really? You’re going to take advice form a hack and a liar like Amity Shlaes? No wonder your advice is off the rails.”

More than a trillion dollars in deficit spending year after year did not shake Swartz’s faith in Keynes. Early in 2010 he responded to my “Looking back at 2009” posting with “[you are] missing Keynesianism, which seems like the obviously correct answer”.

Email records suggest that I have not corresponded with Aaron since then. My next interaction was with his criminal defense lawyers. Aaron was charged with parking a server on the MIT campus and accumulating a database of journal articles that were accessible to computers with MIT IP addresses. The lawyers asked me “Why would someone download a huge body of academic journal articles?” (my response was “I would be guessing but my best guess would be that they wanted to experiment with some kind of text processing algorithm. Machine understanding of text is part of the current research frontier. Consider that what you want when you type a question into Google is not a link to an article that you can read and maybe find the answer but an actual answer to the question.” (and in fact Swartz had a history of doing analysis on large bodies of text, e.g., Wikipedia back in 2006)

I asked the lawyers “Suppose that the government’s case is completely frivolous and Swartz is guaranteed to be acquitted. What would he expect to spend in legal fees to defend the case?” They didn’t want to reveal anything particular to Aaron’s case but said “Generally the minimum cost to defend a federal criminal lawsuit is $1.5 million.”

A daunting prospect for anyone. Apparently too daunting for a 26-year-old.

Aaron leaves us his weblog.

18 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz

  1. It is interesting to compare the prosecutor’s behavior here: http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully with the behavior of the cops in your prior post re: glider pilot versus nuclear power plant.

    This aligns with my own, very occasional, minor run ins with law, as well as behavior we see in many public cases, and that is severe over reactions, severe over charging from government officials.

    What part of that is ignorance, maliciousness, or careerism?

  2. Here’s the (or a) Winer post:

    “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.”


  3. Feds going after you is like a denial-of-service attack on a Web site – they don’t have to win, but you always lose. How many people charged by the Feds have a spare $1.5 million lying around?

  4. At some point after he had won the aD prize, I recall exchanging some emails or IMs with him and being awed that he was five years young than I was.

    As a graduate student in English literature often confronted by the limitations of my university library system, I was thrilled to learn of his work with JSTOR.


  5. The arrogant and irresponsible government prosecutors who, in effect, murdered Aaron, the irresponsible academics who stood around shrugging their shoulders in indifference, and the various media outlets that casually reported on his arrest, should think carefully about the lack of proportion in the American criminal justice system, and the devastating impact it can have on real lives.

    Authorities in New York have undertaken a similarly disproportionate assault on reason, this time focused on academic whistle-blowing and satirical emails. And again, there appears to be nothing but silence from the relevant communities. For further information on the case, see:


  6. Swartz’ tarred corpse now swings in an iron gibbet alongside the Information Superhighway, as a grim warning to others with funny ideas about intellectual property, namely: if you break the law, the law will break you.

  7. “The arrogant and irresponsible government prosecutors who, in effect, murdered Aaron […]”

    Following this line of thought we conclude that the arrogant and irresponsible government prosecutors should not charge anyone, because the accused, or members of their family, might kill themselves. See for the example the case of Mark Madoff, the son of Bernie Madoff: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/11/mark-madoff-suicide-hanged_n_795342.html.

    After all, as president Obama recently said, “if your actions result in only saving one life, they’re worth taking”. So I say let’s get rid of all government prosecutors, as that might save lives.

    On a different topic, Phil, I was wondering what your thoughts are re. the fact that someone with Aron’s intelligence fully supported the Keynesian arguments in the face of strong evidence that there are some problems with that approach, to say the least. Why isn’t someone as gifted as Aron unable to at least have doubts re. this matter? Too much confidence in one’s intelligence? Something else?

  8. Liam: I think that in this case there was legitimate uncertainty as to what Aaron intended to do with the body of text that he downloaded. It is possible that he intended to write a computer program to process the text, as he previously did with Wikipedia. It is possible that he intended to somehow redistribute at least the public domain portion of the text, as he previously did with his work with federal court opinions. His downloading of the text could have been part of his computer nerd hat or his activist hat. It seems unlikely that we will ever know for sure.

    On the second topic… why does someone like Aaron look at a government that spends 40 percent of GDP and say “If only the government could spend 50 or 60 percent of GDP”? And especially given that the government, though not quite big enough to give Aaron everything that he wanted from government, was still so big that it was able to assign an army of lawyers to crush him, why did Aaron want a bigger government?

    I think that there is a tendency of young smart people to overestimate the smartness of the human race. They look at our tangled mess of a health care system and say “If only a smart person like me were running things this could function fantastically” rather than “What a mess. Americans are clearly incompetent at this. We need something a lot smaller and simpler and then, if things get ugly, to put sick people on Airbus A380s and fly them to a country where they can do health care competently.”

    If you assume that Barack Obama, Congress, and the rest of Washington are all Platonic philosopher kings then the only thing standing between us and some sort of New Paradise on Earth is that we haven’t given these guys enough cash. If you are young and smart it is easy to assume that the world is full of other similar right-minded geniuses and you just need a bit of management change in order to make all big systems work wonderfully. It is only the old and cynical who would suggest that humans are inherently flawed and that big systems tend not to work well.

  9. If you ask most criminal defense lawyers, they will tell you that prosecutors almost always over-charge the people they prosecute. Although it may be true that most people charged with a crime are in fact guilty of some offense; few are guilty of everything they are charged with. Over-charging, however, makes the system glide along — most defendants accept a plea bargain rather than risk going to trial and being convicted on all counts.

    The only think unusual about this case is the attention the prosecutors’ behavior is now receiving.

  10. “The United States prison-industrial complex today incarcerates at five times the world’s average. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prisoners – over 2.3 million human beings behind bars. Only some of them are actually guilty of something or another. In these times, the Unites States’ habit of mass incarceration has very little to do with justice or corrections in any form. Instead, it is a tremendously lucrative multifaceted business, veiled from the outside world and its own population by the layers of secrecy and brazen hypocrisy”

    This is from Somebody who is in jail now, a decade without prosecution, because he won’t accept the plea bargain. There has been a law recently that allows inmates to publish . more here http://www.3w3rr.com/p/intro.html

  11. “Following this line of thought we [would] conclude that the arrogant and irresponsible government prosecutors should not charge anyone, because the accused, or members of their family, might kill themselves.”

    Of course not, Liam. What I do believe we should conclude is that serious measures should be introduced to discourage malicious prosecutions (i.e., an appropriate degree of accountability which at present is virtually non-existent); that the principle of proportionality should be explicitly introduced into our statutes and jurisprudence, just as it is a basic element of European constitutional law; and that the relevant academic and legal communities should not remain discreetly silent and shrug their shoulders in indifference when such abuses occur. In particular, when First Amendment issues are at stake, no matter how “malicious” or unpopular the criminalized speech may be, the protest should be immediate, and strong enough to dissuade prosecutors from seeking ways of “getting around” the Constitution.

  12. P.s. See the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, Article 49.3:

    Principles of legality and proportionality of criminal offences and penalties

    3. The severity of penalties must not be disproportionate to the criminal offense.

    I will leave others to explain why legal commentators, lawmakers and sentencing courts in the United States have systematically ignored this basic moral principle.

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