Cory Doctorow on Aaron Swartz

Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Written by Cory Doctorow

On January 11, a young hacker, hacktivist and entrepreneur named Aaron Swartz took his own life. He was 26, and I had known him since he was 14. He was facing 50 years in prison. His crime was to walk into an unsecured computer closet at MIT, near the Harvard campus where he had a fellowship, and plug a laptop into the campus network, with which he proceeded to download a large amount of paywalled academic journal articles from JSTOR, an online repository of scholarly works. It is widely speculated that he planned on making these available for free, though it may be that no one will ever know what he really intended.

Here’s what we do know: Aaron didn’t care about the freedom of information. Aaron cared about the freedom of *people* to make use of information. When I met Aaron, he was already someone extraordinary, a 14 year old programmer who’d made key contributions to the RSS 1.0 standard, part of the foundational infrastructure of the Internet, designed to facilitate the sharing of information between different sites. He went on to be part of the founding team of Creative Commons, then went on to help create a website called Reddit, which is now one of the most rollicking, thriving communities on the Internet.

Aaron used his Reddit money to become a full-time, full-tilt, reckless and wonderful shit-disturber. Offended that the US government was charging for access to public domain case-law, Aaron paid to download 20% of US law, and then put it in the public domain. This earned him his very own FBI file and the everlasting enmity of the DoJ, who were frustrated that this punk kid had had the gall to give the public free access to its own laws, and had gotten away with it.

The DoJ threw the book at Aaron over the MIT stunt, even though JSTOR publicly disavowed any further prosecution of Aaron (MIT was more lukewarm on the subject, which gave the DoJ the excuse it needed to press on). They asked the court for a 50 year sentence for “computer crimes.” Even if he won, Aaron was looking at well over $1,000,000 in legal fees.

Aaron hanged himself two years, to the day, after his arrest. Make of that what you will.

I have often been asked whether M1k3y, the adolescent hero of Little Brother and Homeland, is a version of me. He’s not, I always say, because I was never as cool as that. I don’t think Aaron was “cool” in the way M1k3y aspires to be, but the two of them share a passionate, visceral response to injustice; they share a preternatural technical ability; and they share a charm and humor that makes the people around them want to follow them and listen to them.

Aaron read an early draft of Little Brother and called it, “The most subversive piece of fiction I can think of. I imagine armies of kids out there nuking frozen grapes.” When I started work on Homeland, the sequel to Little Brother, I knew I wanted it to turn on a next-generation political campaign. Aaron’s activist group, Demand Progress, had been at the vanguard of the fight against SOPA and PIPA (the sure-thing, oppressive Internet/copyright bills that collapsed in the face of absolutely unprecedented public protest). I knew he’d have good ideas.

He did. I sent him an email about it at 5:57AM on the morning of Dec 22, 2011. Aaron answered with a full-fledged, brilliant high-tech political campaigning strategy at 8:23AM. It was so good I basically just pasted it straight into the book, except for the last line: “i could go on, but i should actually take a break and do some of this.”

Aaron wrote one of the two afterwords to Homeland. I asked him what he would say to his own 14-year-old self, what advice he’d give. He wrote an outstanding call to arms, which includes lines like:
“I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop ‘the system.’ Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.”


“The system is changing. Thanks to the Internet, everyday people can learn about and organize around an issue even if the system is determined to ignore it. Now, maybe we won’t win every time—this is real life, after all—but we finally have a chance.

“But it only works if you take part. And now that you’ve read this book and learned how to do it, you’re perfectly suited to make it happen again. That’s right: now it’s up to you to change the system.

“Let me know if I can help.”

Aaron signed it with his email address. He wanted the world to get in touch with him. He can’t answer their emails anymore, but he can still help. Aaron may have been hounded into a premature grave half a century before he should have gone, but he left behind a legacy and a consciousness of what can change, and how it can change.

The DoJ will never win their case against Aaron, now. And if we remember Aaron’s passion and conviction that wrongs must be righted; that information doesn’t want to be free, but people surely do; he will win forevermore.

Goodbye, Aaron. We miss you.


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35 thoughts on “Cory Doctorow on Aaron Swartz

  1. “The DoJ will never win their case against Aaron, now.”

    When I first heard about this, I thought that Mr. Swarz (understandably) broke under an incredible amount of pressure This makes me wonder if, instead, he sacrificed himself to prevent a legal precedent from being set before more could follow his courageous example. If so, he is a hero in many ways.

    1. His death isn’t a courageous example, and it does him and others a disservice to think of it that way. His death is a great sadness and points to how poorly we take care of each other. It is never a good thing when a person takes their life. At best, it is a lesser evil.

      1. Sorry for any ambiguity. The “courageous example” to which I was referring was the activism. The decision to take his own life might have been a sacrifice, but I am not suggesting that anyone follow that example. If my suggestion is correct, they couldn’t produce a similar result, anyway.

        Thanks for the response. Out of respect for this post and forum, I won’t debate your assumptions about suicide.

  2. Lots of people chiming in on the basis of limited information supporting the author’s views on the suicide of someone who couldn’t face the potential consequences of his actions. Some people who haven’t watched it (REALLY watched it) may benefit from viewing Cool Hand Luke. Most of you aren’t going to do anything about this anyway, but if you decide to, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” Any government, including ours, is a monolith that will chew you up and spit you out if you cross it. Make very, very sure of what you’re willing to pay before you do.

  3. Reblogged this on L.P.'s and commented:
    The events below happened on January 11th, but regardless of when they happened, I’m bummed to learn about stuff like this. On a base level, all we have are the facts in text, but it still doesn’t take away from the idea that there are certain self-proclaimed elite bodies of authority out there (government bodies, government-funded academic institutions, etc) that withhold certain information. I’m not talking about all information. If some information’s private because the author wants it to be his own, that’s fine, but there’s other information that no one can really claim – basically information that pertains to everyone. Intellectual property rights I can understand. If an author creates something, that information, as far as I’m concerned, is hers/his and he/she can do whatever they want with it (let others see it, or niggardly keep it hidden). But withholding information that no one has created, that’s just out there in the world for anyone to look at and absorb, is an act of greed, and part of a larger strategy to divide for the purpose of status. Stories like Aaron’s below reinforce the idea that information that is inherently public, should not be shackled and given only to those eyes who first claim power over it. It’s the bravery of people like Aaron (*sounds like a harmless act to me) that merit my commendation.

  4. As a person who has dealt with mental illness and has a child with depression I was disappointed and saddened by Cory’s post. Aaron wrote about his chronic depression – which is a disease, but a mental one – in 2007 here: [], but Cory ignores it in favor of his activism.

    Aaron talks about the shame and the stigma of sickness. Did Cory simply not know, or does he not want to sully his friends reputation by allowing that Aaron suffered from a flaw that destroyed him. I wonder is Cory ashamed that Aaron’s suicide had nothing to do with his activism, but instead wants to preserve his friend’s memory in some more positive way. A martyr is glorious, illness isn’t. Mental Illness most of all isn’t. We can’t have Aaron share something in common with those who walk the streets railing at invisible enemies. Is Cory afraid that if Aaron was thought of as suffering of mental illness his activism would be undermined?

    Cory is among the legion who will continue Aaron’s convictions and his activism, but who will pay attention to why he died. Will we ignore his suffering because it makes us uncomfortable – we prefer our heroes to be pure and strong. Not weak, flawed and human.

    Will people complain that my post ignores Aaron’s life to focus on his death? If Aaron had died of cancer, or ALS or some massively resistant bacteria wouldn’t there be an outcry for the cure? A fund to help continue research? They happen all the time. But no, Aaron hung himself and that is shameful. So we will ignore it to focus on the positive. Maintaining the shame and stigma of suicide is just as important as freeing people to read what is on JSTOR without paying.

  5. I am sadly not as technologically gifted as most people are, certainly not as good as Aaron. But this eulogy inspires me, and from what I can see, many others. I hope more people will become aware and active about the things that goverments seem to do without reprocussion. The future is bleak for us already. As Alexander Fraser Tytler once said: “The historical cycle seems to be: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage once more.”

    1. Aaron Swartz and Cory Doctorow are repudiations of everything Tytler believed. Both men show that free people can and will handle their own affairs. That the might of the State can be opposed. It can be harnessed to the needs of Liberty and that the tool most needed to maintain our Liberty isn’t a gun, it is information. Cory’s eulogy of Aaron, as flawed as I think it is, is a great repercussion to how the DoJ handled Aaron’s downloading of the JSTOR files. Civil Disobedience of Aaron’s sort is a valid means of protest.

      Tytler was a firm Monarchist and believed that democracies were doomed to failure. He said that “All government is essentially of the nature of a monarchy [see Wikipedia for details]. So to follow his line of thought we should abandon the Constitution and allow God to show us who are true King is? Or simply to allow a dictator to arise?

      Republics like the US should do well to remember Tytler as an example of how may ways there are to be wrong. Not find any justification in his views.

  6. Surely this is a problem endemic to the capitalist *system,* which restricts knowledge to those prepared to pay for it.

    To my mind, it is analogous to Tim Berners-Lee inventing the internet (HTTP, URLs, IPs etc) and *gifting* it to the world, but seeing its further development constrained by the likes of Bill Gates / Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg,who fence off great areas so that they can make money.

    In order to free human knowledge for *everybody* you have to get rid of a system that works on the principle that one can only have what one can afford.

    And it is not Mr Swartz who suffered from a “mental illness,” so much as capitalism itself that is psychotic.

    1. So you’re saying that non-capitalistic systems don’t censor inormation. I’ll let that sit for a moment. How is freely trading value for value psychotic?

  7. Sad. You have moved me.
    However… I do have a question… are we quite sure that he killed himself? Despite what I read in the comments about his having depression, I must admit that I have some doubts.

  8. I wonder what TOR would think if their entire catalogue was digitzed then made *free* on the internet because information should be available to everyone.

    1. That has nothing to do with TOR : the information that Aaron Schwartz wanted to liberate was _practical_ information, case law, scientific research (often funded by the public…). The books published by TOR are fiction, and even in the case of non-fiction books, their main appeal is the creativity of the author and his writing. The main value of research paper or case law doesn’t reside in their literary quality but really in their informational content.

      1. This. Believe me, my academic colleagues would be flattered that someone wants to share their work. The only ones “harmed” here are obsolete middlemen.

      2. Asserting what ones “Academic Colleagues” would be flattered about seems a tad high handed. As this paper in Nature points out:

        Researchers are not necessarily thrilled about how open their papers are.

        What do words like “Share” and “Open” mean? There is a huge amount of confusion out there. People like Richard Stallman define how they use the terms, but there isn’t a common understanding. Moral understandings, licenses for use, legal terms and platitudes are tossed about interchangeably and lead to mistakes.

      3. Wow, #22. Did you even read that article? The researchers just don’t want the work used piecemeal out of context or for commercial gain. They are, otherwise, for free and open access. The rest of the noise comes from the very middlemen (publishers) to which I referred.

      4. #23- Yes I did, and it’s an example of what I am talking about. There is confusion and ambiguity in the licensing process of publishing academic papers. The academics are taking the careful approach of choosing the most restrictive licenses because they are the easiest to understand and the one most likely to generate income.

        I don’t see what this had to do with Aaron Swartz and depression.

      5. It has everything to do with it – copyright is copyright. JSTOR is repository of published and copyrighted material. Even if JSTOR doesn’t care, I’m sure the publishers who have deals with them (and salaries to pay) do care. You can’t win when it comes to stealing. If this knowledge is so important I’m sure you can save by skipping the iPhone and data package for a few years so you can afford it. Who even downloaded the stuff he killed himself over? Such a useless death.

  9. I love how Doctorow minimizes exactly what Aaron did, to try to make it out to be something that people couldn’t possibly think he deserved prosecution for.

    And how he plays into the “he was faving 50 years” hype, when the reality is he was facing 6 months from the plea deal he had been offered, and even had he gone to trial, federal binding sentencing guidelines would have prevented him from serving more than 2.

    What he did was much more serious, he attached an unauthorized device in an attempt to circumvent access controls. He knew he was breaking the law, that’s why he repeatedly hid his face while sneaking into the closet where he placed the laptop and plugged it into their network.

    Aaron thought that he was above the law, having come from a life of privilege, and that his celebrity status would afford him immunity from the consequences of his actions, as it did in the prior incident where he broke the law in an act of civil disobedience.

    Frankly, I think it is insulting to the man for those who claim to know and care about him to say he was so fragile, so weak a person, that he would rather kill himself, and cause the pain and suffering on his family and friends that suicide would cause, rather than do 6 months to 24 months in a federal prison camp.

    The pain he caused others by his suicide is multitudes more than the “pain” he was facing from doing the time for a crime he knew he was committing.

    1. In the end your comments are why I assert that Aaron’s suicide was mostly unrelated to his prosecution. There is nothing in the case brought to justify what he did. Since he did do it this leads to the conclusion that there was another motive. The mental agony of depression, as Aaron notes himself, is all the reason necessary.

      In the end Cory’s and Lawrence Lessig’s attempts to turn Aaron into a martyr will backfire, driving this issues and Aaron’s death deeper into the realm of conspiracy theorists and the extreme left edge.

  10. Theft of intellectual property is still theft. DO your sell sell for money? Or do you give them away for free?

  11. Perhaps we should not be so quick to diagnose suicide these days. When skilled assassins have been caught staging “suicides” and police refuse to investigate deaths that can be conveniently blamed on politically inconvenient people just because they have become depressed under official assault, no unwitnessed suicide can be taken at face value. Watching the CSI antics on TV gives folks the false impression that crimes are carefully analyzed. Couldn’t be further from the truth, as scandal after scandal continues to show. Besides, if someone is deliberately drivien to suicide, is not that murder?

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