The Mystery of Aaron Swartz’s Alleged Suicide


The Internet’s Own Boy: The History of Aaron Swartz

Brian Knappenberger (2014)

Film Review

The Internet’s Own Boy is about computer prodigy and ardent free Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz allegedly hanged himself in 2013 two weeks before going to trial on federal charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). This documentary tries to portray that Swartz’s suicide was triggered by his terror of what the federal government was about to do to him. I don’t buy it.

Computer Prodigy, Entrepreneur and Internet Activist

Despite his untimely death at age 26, Swartz already had a string of inventions and accomplishments to his name. At twelve, he invented Infobase, an early on-line precursor to Wikipedia. At thirteen, he was part of the online group that developed the RSS (Rich Site Summary) protocol, a web feed format to syndicated frequently updated information, such as blog entries and headlines. At fifteen he worked with Larry Lessig to create the Creative Commons platform for writers, photographers, researchers and artists who wish to freely share their work for non-commercial purposes. Shortly after dropping out of Stanford at eighteen, he created the immensely popular social media site Reddit.

Swartz is perhaps best known as the lead organizer of the successful campaign to block SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). Congressional enactment of SOPA would have forced web servers to take down a website, without warning or due process, based on a mere accusation of copyright infringement of any user at the site. Swartz and other net neutrality activities saw SOPA as a scheme by large for-profit Internet companies to wipe out the small free content sites that competed with them.

Turning his Back on Corporate America

Swartz made the decision not to use his programming skills for profit, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, while working for Conde Nast magazine, which bought Reddit from him for $1 million. Swartz was a passionate believer in free access to the to the Internet and accumulated scientific and cultural knowledge.

He was greatly inspired by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who Swartz had met as a child. Berners-Lee could easily have used the Internet to become fabulously wealthy. Instead he gave it away for free, believing everyone was entitled to Internet access regardless of their ability to pay.

Swartz’s First Brush with the FBI

A substantial portion of the film is devoted to the downloading activities that led the Justice Department to charge Swartz with thirteen felonies under the CFAA.

Hi first brush with the FBI occurred in 2008 when he helped Carl Malamud start the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) project. PACER is the illegal government racket that charges users ten cents a page to download federal court records. Reaping the federal government more than $10 million a year, PACER denies access to public legal information to people without the means to pay for it. Together Malamud and Swartz developed a program to simultaneously download large numbers of PACER files from the seventeen public libraries that made PACER documents available free of charge. They would eventually download 20% of the PACER dataset (20 million pages), which they made available free of charge at their website.

The FBI would ultimately close their investigation, concluding that Swartz had done nothing illegal.

The Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto

Swartz subsequently started the Progressive Change Campaign (which kick started Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for Senate) and Demand Progress, an Internet group dedicated to fighting various forms of Internet censorship. Swartz particularly objected to rich corporations locking up the work (which they obtain for free) of researchers whose salaries are paid, directly or indirectly, by the taxpayer. He felt that scientific and cultural knowledge is part of the Commons and that human knowledge can only be advanced by sharing it.

In the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, Swartz refers to this as the private theft of public information and calls for civil disobedience to stop it.

His download of JSTOR files at MIT was exactly this type of civil disobedience. As a Harvard fellow he had free access to JSTOR via the MIT website. As he had done with PACER, he set up a program in an MIT janitor’s closet to download thousands of JSTOR documents to portable hard drives. After catching him on a surveillance camera, the Cambridge police busted him and turned the case over to the Secret Service (they have jurisdiction over computer fraud under the Patriot Act) and the US attorney’s office.

The Department of Justice ultimately charged him with thirteen felonies under CFAA. Although potentially he was looking at thirty-five years in jail and a $1 million fine, a federal prosecutor stated after his death that they planned to ask for a six month jail sentence. Swartz’s own attorney believed he would be acquitted, based on his high profile activism and his clear intent to establish free public access to the JSTOR articles he was downloading. It was impossible to establish that he planned to defraud JSTOR or re-sell the document.

Suicide? Or Murder?

The Internet’s Own Boy tries to convince us that Swartz was so distraught by the Obama administration’s viciousness that he was impelled to take his own life. Yet none of this jives with the Aaron Swartz we see on the screen. A year after his initial arrest, Aaron leads and – against all odds – wins a grassroots campaign to defeat SOPA. Buoyant after his SOPA victory, he asks his girlfriend to marry him and decides to hang himself. Yeah right.

Recent history is filled with the names of activists, journalists, whistleblowers – and now investment bankers – who embarrass the rich and powerful and conveniently up and kill themselves. In my view, Moti Nissani offers a far more plausible explanation of Aaron Swartz’s demise in Who Killed Aaron Swartz