Freedom Fighter

FOR ALL THE GENUINE insight that The Boy Who Could Change the World affords into the mind of Aaron Swartz, the free-information activist whose life was cut tragically short by suicide in 2013, the book’s most telling sentence is probably on the third page, in small font: “No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher.”

Swartz was an ardent champion of sharing information on the Internet, and his dedication to this cause often ran up against unforgiving US copyright laws. And yet even this collection of his writings and blog posts comes, by default, under the same restrictive copyright protections he hoped someday to dismantle. To its credit, the New Press is a not-for-profit publishing house and so is unlikely to aggressively enforce its own boilerplate legal disclaimer. But it’s still hard to imagine that Swartz would have been thrilled at the idea of a person shelling out $18 for a copyrighted version of writings that are available online for anyone to read for free.

This book will not satisfy someone with a general interest in Swartz’s lifework. Swartz had some provocative ideas on how best to apply technology to politics, but much of his writing is dense and includes semitechnical material. (One post has circuit diagrams, and another is titled “A Brief History of Ajax,” a now-ubiquitous Web technology that allows sites to communicate with databases in real time.) The anthology conveys Swartz’s enthusiasm for the journalistic, political, and technological issues that preoccupied him, but blogs are not meant to be consumed all at once.

So we are lucky to have The Idealist, by the journalist Justin Peters. His account is part biography, part history of copyright law, and ultimately a cogent and readable précis of the life of a twenty-six-year-old genius who managed, over the course of a few years, to contribute to a lifetime’s worth of projects and initiatives. To read The Idealist is to get the gist of the most influential and telling entries from Swartz’s collected works without having to struggle through them all.

Peters’s history of copyright law dates back to Noah Webster, a man born “ten years too late and 220 years too soon,” which is to say that he narrowly missed out on being a Founding Father and, by a considerably larger margin, an Internet icon. Webster is the godfather of American copyright reform, having lobbied for the nation’s first major copyright legislation in 1831, and his influence resounds in the ongoing attempts to reconcile intellectual property with the free circulation of information.

After a cameo in Peters’s short introduction, Swartz doesn’t appear again until page 123. Peters’s decision to tell the story of Swartz’s life through the copyright and free-culture debates is, from a biographer’s standpoint, a practical one: In spite of his prodigious work ethic, Swartz did not live long enough to flesh out a complete life study.

Unpacking the inner life of someone who lives primarily online would be a challenge for any author. Though boys like Swartz—and everyone seems to insist that, even at the age of twenty-six, he was still a boy—leave behind long trails of thoughts and correspondence online, it is difficult to bring to life an individual who feels most comfortable behind screen and keyboard. Like so many other Web enthusiasts, Swartz found his voice and many of his friends through chat rooms and listservs. “I have developed my most meaningful relationships online,” he wrote in 2001. “None of them live within driving distance.” That distinction was largely moot; a fourteen-year-old at the time, Swartz could not drive.

From an early age, Swartz became an influential advocate in various forums devoted to the fight to offer as much information as possible for free online. Many of the friends he made there were astounded to learn how young he was. “On the topic of not necessarily having a good feel for the age of net-based collaborators, I was blown away to learn that Aaron Swartz is in 8th grade :-!!,” one developer wrote to a popular mailing list.

Swartz’s life neatly encompasses both meanings of the word hacker. Originally, the term referred to any sort of computer enthusiast interested in challenging the boundaries of modern society. For most of his life, this is exactly what Swartz was. The list of projects he founded or contributed to goes on and on, from a proto-Wikipedia called The Info Network to Watchdog.net, a site devoted to making government data sets easily accessible to the public. In the last years of his life, he turned to vigilante methods of the sort one now associates with hacker, downloading massive numbers of technically private documents that, at least in the opinion of the United States government, he intended to distribute far and wide.

Aaron Swartz at a Wikipedia meeting, Boston, 2009.
Aaron Swartz at a Wikipedia meeting, Boston, 2009. Sage Ross/Wikicommons

These later activities, along with his suicide, are the reasons most people have heard of Swartz. They are also why there’s a market for a book like The Idealist. But, as Peters makes clear, Swartz’s tour of duty as a code-smashing hacktivist marked merely the coda of a life devoted in large part to more lawful activism. “First, copyright law is the law,” Swartz said in a 2004 interview. His first major foray into the broader open-access movement began with a trip he made to Washington, DC, at age fifteen to attend the Supreme Court oral arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a challenge to Congress’s most recent extension of copyrights in 1998. Swartz had already connected with the lead counsel for the plaintiff, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig. At the time, there was still hope that the courts might address the problem of overly long copyrights, which keep important texts from being freely accessible on the Internet.

The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 against the plaintiffs in early 2003, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the majority opinion. It is difficult to say when Swartz decided that massive resistance was an appropriate response to the copyright problem. But it would be five
years before he wrote the blog post that became the chief exhibit in the government’s case against him.

In 2008, writing from Italy, Swartz published a 580-word essay called the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which stated that “we need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.” There is some dispute over whether others contributed to the document, but it has Swartz’s name on it.

It’s not hard to understand the reasons for Swartz’s impatient call to expropriate the information expropriators. For all its ballyhooed promise as a single network designed to realize the long-standing dream of creating a universal, instantly accessible library, the Internet is composed in large part of discrete closed networks. A standard Google search is blind to private Facebook posts and the content of both copyrighted books in Google’s database and academic articles that one must purchase from conglomerates like JSTOR or Reed Elsevier.

This offended Swartz in a profound way, because it ran exactly counter to his vision of the Web as a system where anyone could access information for free. “Stealing is wrong. But downloading isn’t stealing,” he wrote in 2004. “If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it.” He may not have been thinking specifically about academic research at the time, but there was a clear distinction in his mind: Copyright protections perpetuate a false legal conflation of use and theft.

For most of his life, Swartz was devoted to much more anodyne innovations within Web culture. He was integral to the development of the first standard for RSS, which most sites still use today to publish feeds of their newest content. He was also involved in the development of Markdown, a shorthand coding for HTML still widely in use. He helped develop the early guidelines for Creative Commons, an alternative copyright-style set of permissions that allows for liberal redistribution of content. (Wikipedia uses a form of Creative Commons today to permit the site’s content to be reprinted without explicit permission or payment.) Most famously, Swartz joined with two other online visionaries to create and improve the site Reddit.com, though he was never a bosom buddy of the other founders. When Condé Nast purchased the site, it was said that Swartz received a seven-figure payout.

Peters touches on all these accomplishments, but his aim is not to enumerate this Internet prodigy’s many contributions to digital technology. His primary interest is in the case that, in the opinion of many, led Swartz to hang himself on January 11, 2013, at a time when his legal fortunes seemed to be improving.

In the autumn of 2010, Swartz took the advice he’d laid out in the “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” and set up a program that, using guest access to the MIT network, downloaded massive numbers of articles from the digital fortress erected by the academic-journal aggregator JSTOR. Normally, JSTOR users would either have to pay a hefty subscription fee to access this material or piggyback on an academic network’s subscription, as Swartz was doing. This initiated a months-long cat-and-mouse game between Swartz and JSTOR’s protectors. He downloaded nearly five hundred thousand articles in September and October. A month later, he snuck into a basement closet in MIT’s Building 16 and managed to connect his laptop to the campus network to download still more JSTOR articles. Eventually, four different law-enforcement agencies got involved in the hunt, including the Secret Service. Swartz was caught only after agents placed motion-activated cameras in the closet in order to identify him.

How Swartz went from millionaire Reddit cofounder to Internet highwayman is never sufficiently explained in The Idealist. In all likelihood, no one can completely understand his motives. For all of Swartz’s affinity for online argument, he was a private person who rarely included much in the way of his inner life on his blog. He had difficulty showing affection and never shared much about his activities or his legal troubles with a brief succession of girlfriends.

The federal case dragged on for three years, and Swartz was forced to squander his payout from the Reddit deal on legal fees. Throughout the process, the government insisted that it would accept no plea deal that didn’t involve jail time, even after JSTOR publicly exonerated Swartz. (MIT was not so generous, refusing to issue any statement in Swartz’s defense.) Unwilling to accept a deal that would send him to prison and make him a convicted felon, Swartz chose to go to trial—a trial that would never go forward.

Janet Malcolm has written that “all families of suicides are alike. They wear a kind of permanent letter S on their chests. Their guilt is never assuaged. Their anxiety never lifts.” Peters, for his part, doesn’t strain to connect Swartz’s suicide to his legal situation. (After all, thousands of Americans face courtroom justice every day without taking their own lives ahead of time.) The closest we get to any clue as to the cause of Swartz’s suicide is a comment he made to his girlfriend shortly before his death: “Am I always going to feel like this?” He was recovering from the flu at the time, and she reasonably interpreted the question as referring to his physical health.

Swartz’s act baffled those closest to him. Peters, too, seems to be baffled, and doesn’t speculate much on what might ultimately explain it. Understandably, members of Swartz’s family showed less restraint. At his son’s memorial service, Swartz’s father said, “He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”

The mystery surrounding Swartz’s suicide is an ironic one. In many respects, Swartz was radically transparent about his life and his plans to enhance his own footprint in the world, both online and off. He wrote an extended series of posts on his ideas for self-improvement. (Curiously, these are not anthologized in The Boy Who Could Change the World.) He was obsessed with how companies, activist groups, and political campaigns could be streamlined, and even drew up a document called “How to Save the World, Part 1.” He imagined a nimble group of hypercapable professionals who would be forever revising their tactics based on what worked and what didn’t.

However, Swartz’s personality could quickly grate on his collaborators. He frequently lost interest in projects he started with others and did not suffer fools gladly. But his contributions to the Web are undeniable, from his technical work to his prominent role in defeating key congressional measures, such as the PROTECT IP and Stop Online Piracy Acts, that were repugnant to the online community.

In these ways, Swartz did change the world, as the title of his collected writings immodestly suggests, though surely not on the scale he imagined. If anything is missing from Peters’s book, it is an accounting of this twenty-six-year-old’s legacy. For all of Swartz’s achievements, the dream of an open Internet remains elusive. And the government’s draconian response to his JSTOR activities has almost certainly had a chilling effect on others who might have answered the call of his manifesto. (The government’s case against Swartz eventually blossomed into thirteen felony counts and a maximum sentence of ninety-five years in prison, even though Swartz never released the documents he had stolen—or merely copied, depending on whose side you’re on.)

Many people share Swartz’s father’s conviction that, had the government dropped the case after JSTOR declined to press charges, Aaron Swartz would still be alive today. These sorts of hypotheses are impossible to confirm. And yet for all the obvious strain of Swartz’s legal troubles, they didn’t stop him from working. During his year and a half under indictment, Swartz continued to launch projects, give talks, and grow closer to his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, who recalls that the months just prior to Swartz’s suicide were high points in their relationship. Even days before his death, she reports, he showed moments of optimism and hope for the new year.

Nevertheless, the widespread belief that the federal prosecutors’ team killed Aaron Swartz—and that no one in the government has been held accountable for his death—has galvanized online activists around the world to carry on his mission. That fight will be long and full of setbacks. The current copyright extensions passed by Congress will expire in 2018. “If history is any guide, copyright stakeholders will gather in private to draft a statute that protects and advances their financial interests,” Peters writes. Swartz would have been on the front lines of that battle, and it remains unclear who, if anyone, is capable of taking his place.

Chris Wilson is an editor at Time magazine.