Here's a VERY long piece by Justin Peters on Swartz's life and death at Slate, which is in competition to be the New Yorker these days. It's mainly uncritical; regrettably, Orin Kerr calls it "balanced," although he concedes that Peters doesn't ask enough hard questions about the defense attorney's over-enthusiastic assessment of the case. It will likely be linked everywhere as "the definitive piece" on Swartz because I think sadly, those liberal arts majors at the New Yorker would likely be out of its depth reporting it. Maybe someday Vanity Fair will pick this up more critically...
The Idealist: Aaron Swartz wanted to save the world. Why couldn’t he save himself?
Couldn't help thinking of Tears for Fears, Everybody Wants to Save Rule the World.
Question: why couldn't his friends, including some very influential and wealthy tech entrepreneurs and professors save him?
It's the usual "progressive" self-serving hagiographic thing but as I noted (or tried to note in the comments -- Slate always causes me trouble when I try to post, but maybe it's their unwritten word limit.
An interesting note on the timeline from this article, however:
Though Swartz loved Cambridge, Mass., he felt he had to get away. In mid-2011, he started spending more time in New York City
In 2008, Swartz started to get sick of San Francisco. He had been there for about 18 months, and increasingly found the city shallow. “When I go to coffee shops or restaurants I can’t avoid people talking about load balancers or databases,” he wrote. “The conversations are boring and obsessed with technical trivia, or worse, business antics. I don’t see people reading books—even at the library, all the people are in line for the computer terminals or the DVD rack—and people at parties seem uninterested in intellectual conversation.” At the end of spring, Swartz left the city for good and moved back to Cambridge, Mass., which he described as “the only place that’s ever felt like home.”
So that would place him in Cambridge in January-Feburuary 2010 when Manning was there. This piece also explains in fact rather flatly (which is sure to get some spinners mad) why Swartz was ambivalent about joining Redditt -- which we learn from this article was that it was really a forced marriage arranged by Paul Graham. It was simply because Graham didn't feel like he could separately fund Infogami, Swartz's start-up, when Swartz appealed to him, so he pointed him to Redditt to join them and work together. This article more than any other I've seen explains why Swartz should not be called a founder or even "co-founder" of Redditt, although that title was given to him. It was an arranged marriage:
The next night I had dinner with Paul and his friends. They noted my birthday was tomorrow and asked me what I wanted. I thought for a moment about what I wanted most. "A cofounder," I finally said. We all laughed.
Around the same time, two other Y Combinator participants desperately needed help for their own startup, a social news site called Reddit. Graham’s solution was simple: Infogami would merge with Reddit, creating a new umbrella company called Not a Bug. Swartz moved into Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman’s Davis Square apartment and got to work.
You also learn from this article why Elizabeth Warren stepped up to call for investigations into "overreach" in her home state and came to the memorial -- she had already worked with Swartz on the "progressive" PAC called Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
And you learn how Carl Malamud as much as Lawrence Lessig should be put at the top of the list of Swartz's mentors who egged him on to commit hacker crimes -- Tim O'Reilly has told everyone that Carl Malamud on Swartz is a "must read". Here's the 2009 New York Times piece where I think we first saw the "halo photograph" used widely after Swartz's death. "To Mr. Malamud, putting the nation’s legal system behind a wall of cash and kludge separates the people from what he calls the “operating system for democracy.”, gushes the Times John Schwartz, who also wrote gushingly of Swartz as well in other pieces. I have no doubt that Malamud is interested in a much larger and more radical agenda than just getting people court papers.
Peters does gives us a very good journalistic summary of the Swartz hack that really should knock out all these script kiddies constantly ranting that Swartz "didn't hack" or "had authorized acces" or blahblah:
According to the government’s indictment against Swartz, these “rapid and massive downloads and download requests impaired computers used by JSTOR to provide articles to client research institutions.” JSTOR detected something was amiss and blocked Swartz’s IP address. He acquired a new one and began again. JSTOR then went ahead and blocked a range of MIT IP addresses. They also got in touch with MIT, which took steps to ban Swartz’s computer from its network. The indictment claims that Swartz again evaded their security and also got another computer, using both to download more JSTOR articles. This allegedly crashed some of JSTOR’s servers; in response, around Oct. 9, 2010, JSTOR blocked access to its database for everyone at MIT.
Around that time, Swartz ceased his downloading for about a month, most likely because he had traveled to Washington, D.C., with Wikler to volunteer with the DNC in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections. When he returned to Cambridge in November, he got back to downloading. This time, he decided to pre-empt any wireless IP bans by hard-wiring his Acer laptop directly into MIT’s network.
You wonder, reading all this detail, why Swartz chose, on September 24, 2010, to go back and hack JSTOR -- he was busy with so many other projects, campaigns, inventions. You especially wonder when he had taken a break from it for a month.
One person named Hugo makes the interesting observation:
Mr. Swartz's desire to "save the world" comes across more as will-to-power than altruism. It comes across as through there were a serious moral failing at the very centre of his self-enterprise that may or may not have played any role at all in his mental illness, or in his ultimate decision to kill himself.
My answer, half of which I couldn't seem to post:
You've put your finger on something I've felt a long time about life and death of Swartz and his case -- there's an authoritarian arrogance there about hacking and stealing 4 million articles to decide for other people, the JSTOR system and the universities and scholars who participate in it, how they should live -- and be forcibly "liberated" as he "expropriates from the expropriators" like a common Bolshevik. This is dressed up in so much talk of "free" and "open" that people forget that it bears all the signs of technocommunism -- everyone is to be forced to work for free and share everything in a collective farm. How will costs be met?
We hear all sorts of double-talk then about how society already pays for government-sponsored research -- as if private corporations and nonprofits didn't and therefore that notion is valid. We hear that professors are "already" paid so we should get it for free. Why? There are costs to be met in aggregating and storing data. In fact it *is* free for those who paid tuition or work in the university.
Swartz was supposedly crusading for people like me outside of academia who nevertheless research topics and don't want to pay the fees, it can get expensive. But I didn't ask him to crack the system and liberate it, and I pay the fees or I ask a university
The body of people fighting for this "liberation" are in academia, not out of it, and they don't represent all of us -- Prof. Lawrence Lessig has more troubling a relationship to Swartz's despair and death than any prosecutor. Why? Because he didn't go to the mat for his protege, after inciting him to idealistic anarchist actions like this and winking and nodding all the way -- until it came time to REALLY go to bat for him, then he didn't want to lose his credentials and privileged position.
You've also hit upon something that has always troubled me about all the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They all crow about a "Better World". *They* decide what this is, not democratically, not transparently, but just "because they feel like it". They all gain billions from this "betterness" that usually produces for us some crappy product and exposure of our privacy to market data drilling and government prying. We don't get to decide democratically, through elections, through Congress, through law, through democratic institutions, what this "betterness" should be. It is imposed on us by dictatorial fiat and we are to like it -- or else. That's what's so creepy about it. No thank you!
The people who are infatuated with this technocommunist utopia are free to make it among themselves and see who else shows up. Few will -- and the lessons of history explain why. But it's almost as if they know few would, because then they have to coerce others through "liberating" tech like this.
Remember Diaspora? This was the free and open source alternative to Facebook which we just "had" to believe was evil and proprietary because it had a walled garden. Zucerkberg tells us he wants a Better World too, but the consumer is left between chosing wonky open source software that is buggy and connected to dictatorial crazy OS projects without customer service unless you pay a heft consulting fee OR going to a commercial slick platform that is at least easy to use and free even if it grabs your data. But, what happened at Diaspora? The kids took a lot of VC money on Kickstarter. They wasted it. Then one of their lead developers committed suicide like Swartz. The project folded, or as the opensourceniks cunningly disguise its failure, "was returned to the community" -- the real community, however, didn't want or need a wonky open source social network when there was Facebook.
In this New Yorker-length piece here with lots of detail and interviews, Justin fails to tell us the most obvious fact in the case: that there was in fact a plea bargain of six months in exchange for admission of guilt. That the lawyer was free to seek probation instead. That important fact tends to mitigate against the narrative of the evil overreaching prosecutor ready to send the boy genius to the slammer for 7 years.
He also doesn't tell us how much Lessig's wife was actually willing to raise for him; what the bills were; and what was needed. No law office is going to be eager to tell that side of the story, but if you are going to make the claim that Swartz was depressed over his million being depleted on legal bills, you have to tell what they are.
I'm not at all certain that the new evidence the lawyer had would enable him to get things removed from the charges. Of course he was welcome to try. But he failed on trying to invoke Sanchez, the case dealing with 4th amendment search and seizure of trespassers. Swartz was a trespasser. He wasn't an MIT student.
All this double-talking about how MIT is really open and isn't really trespassing is nonsense. Swartz didn't just make a free account and open up JSTOR and download too many files. He circumvented the system, with a python script called Keep Grabbing. He then attached a laptop to the LAN through the wiring closet. It doesn't matter if the door wasn't locked then or now. What matters is that he hung hardware off the LAN to do this hacking because it was getting stopped through the regular means -- and as soon as the IT people saw that, they worried and they called the police.
*THEY* called the police. Your peers. His peers. Your fellow lefty geeks and progressives. THEY did -- because it was a big hack, and big circumvention was involved. Unfortunately, the law doesn't have an escape clause that says "if you are a boy genius, then you don't get to be prosecuted" -- although of course EFF wants to put this in with an absurd proposal to reform the CFAA that would have hackers excused if they show a particularly inventive and innovative way of hacking into a system (!). Like it's a Google science fair!
There is more to ask about Swartz's final hours. What was the party like he went to, who did he talk to, what happened, what was his mood? What did he say the night before?
Swartz was interested intently in drug reform and legalization. Was he using any? Are there toxocology reports we're going to hear about or not?
This self-serving article treats the Swartz story as if it is a legacy and an issue that gets to be handled only by Swartz's precious copyleftist set and the hackers' crew, and the script kiddies who turn up as the fanboyz for these cults.
But there is a wider public that has ever right to know about the real dimensions of this case because they affect all our rights, not just hackers' rights which have to be in balance with the rest of the society that doesn't want them deciding whether we get to have walled gardens or pay walls or not based on the theories of a crank.
And that's why we have to ask what his connection is to Bradley Manning and whether he was among the MIT hackers who met with and may have helped Manning in his hack of the military files. Was the DOJ on a fishing expedition here?