A Lost Promise

It will be quite some time before our community gets over the tragic death of Aaron Swartz in January.  Aaron was easily one of the brightest stars in the hacker world.  While we all want to turn back the hands of time and somehow keep this senseless loss from ever happening, perhaps the best thing we can all do at this point is work together to prevent similar ones from occurring again.

We all owe a great deal to Aaron, his work, his beliefs, his spirit.  RSS was co-authored by him at the age of 14.  He was in the front lines in the fight against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act), a victory we were rejoicing just one year ago.  He also helped form Reddit.  His was the voice that could explain not only what the battle or the project was, but why it was something that truly mattered.  He was truly the best of what we aspire to, and so many throughout the world knew this, as the global news coverage of his passing at the age of 26 demonstrated.

With all of this accomplishment, notoriety, and promise, we can be forgiven for wondering how life could possibly not be seen as worth living by someone with so much to live for.  The truth is it's a lot more complicated than that.  Clinical depression is a condition that is almost unimaginable to those not experiencing it.  Even those who aren't afflicted can easily find themselves facing enormous pressures and feelings of desperation.  This can be brought on by the expectations of society, parents, even oneself.  Anyone can feel this, but hackers especially so since they never quite fit into the normal mold.  While we can revel in that feeling of not being quite like everyone else because of the way we think and present ourselves, there are those moments of self-doubt when we're especially vulnerable, either to outside influences or inner demons.  While some of us battle this a whole lot more, none of us are immune.

Recognizing the signs of someone in trouble can be crucial.  Being available to communicate and knowing when someone is taking on too much are key components to helping a person through a crisis that otherwise might go undetected.  In our community, being different is considered a plus, but we also sometimes fall into habits of peer pressure or judging people we don't quite get.  This is another part of being human, but one that we can try and conquer.

There are those unfortunate times when having a good support structure just isn't enough.  Results can never be guaranteed all we can do is attempt to be there for each other and to never take others for granted.  This is by no means a new problem.  In fact, we put together a panel discussion on this topic at HOPE Number Nine last year, precisely because it's an ongoing crisis that we simply can't ignore.

In Aaron's case, we may never know for sure what it was that drove him over the edge.  But we have a pretty good idea of something that, if it wasn't the catalyst, certainly didn't help.

We refer to the pointless prosecution of Aaron by federal authorities, for reasons that make so little sense.  We must suspect his outspokenness on certain key issues was a real thorn in their sides, and that this was a way to intimidate him into silence.  It's not like we haven't seen this tactic used many times before.

At the heart of it all lies a statute called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, enacted back in 1986, and abused almost constantly ever since.  According to well known academic and Internet activist Lawrence Lessig.  "For 25 years, the CFAA has given federal prosecutors almost unbridled discretion to bully practically anyone using a computer network in ways the government doesn't like."  Boston attorney and writer Harvey Silverglate described it as, "A notoriously broad statute enacted by Congress seemingly to criminalize any use of a computer to do something that could be deemed bad."  You get the idea.

What had happened to Aaron under this statute is worthy of a Kafka tale.  His "crime" was making available to the public academic papers, something most authors of academic papers consider a positive thing.  Even JSTOR, the company that served as a repository for these papers and which had been Aaron's source for them, declined to prosecute him and, in fact, even took steps to ultimately make availability easier.  They actually listened and did what many consider to be the right thing, not just for Aaron but for the entire Internet and academic communities.

To the feds, however, this was an opportunity to send a message to anyone who would dare challenge the law.  For reasons that are still unclear, the Secret Service took over the investigation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Aaron had downloaded the academic papers) early in 2011.  MIT apparently let this happen without any warrant or subpoena.  As many of us know from previous experiences, when the Secret Service latches onto a case, they are relentless and without much in the way of scruples.

In the summer of 2011, Aaron was charged with a variety of crimes and given a $100,000 bail.  Almost anyone studying the case came to the conclusion that it was laughable at best.  Aaron continued to be outspoken about the many laws and statutes (proposed and existing) that hindered free speech online, though he rarely focused attention on what he himself was facing.  Last September, again for reasons that remain unclear, federal prosecutors tripled the number of charges against him, meaning that Aaron was now facing up to 35 years in prison and a one million dollar fine.  All for downloading a bunch of academic journals that were always meant to be readable by the public.  The case was still laughable.  But it wasn't going away.

It's easy to dismiss such outrageous conduct and to assume that, in the end, justice will prevail.  It's also easy to look at the maximum penalties and assume that nothing like that would ever actually be handed down, and that, if it were, a veritable tide of humanity would rise up to challenge it.  But that all changes very quickly when you're the one facing the penalties.  This is something we've been keen to since our early years, ironically right around the time of the CFAA.  We've seen so many courageous people victimized by authorities who don't even regard them as human, but merely as another charge to file for a violation of something that often made no logical sense.  We've seen people win, and yet still lose.

So, the sad fact remains that even if Aaron had been victorious in his case, he still would have lost a huge amount of money defending himself.  But, of course, you don't just win this kind of a case.  The feds have something like a 97 percent success rate, and it's clear they wanted to throw the book at Aaron.  So, the best he could have hoped for would have been a short sentence (they were adamant about his having to serve some time), a fine of some sort, all of those legal expenses, and the label of "felon" following him around for the rest of his life.  And, at some point, it's likely those daunting prospects simply became too much for Aaron to bear.  We'll never know how much all of this influenced his fateful decision, but it's hard to imagine that it didn't play a significant part.

We need to look forward because that's all any of us can do.  We will live in a world decidedly poorer for Aaron's absence, but we need to do our best to carry on the work he was a part of.  We cannot let go of the anger that comes with this tragedy, because that's our only hope for changing the system.  Aaron was far from the only one who was a victim of its callous disregard for anything outside its rigid and narrow view of the law.  If we don't demand changes, then this will continue to happen, as it continues to happen to so many today.  And finally, we need to really be looking out for each other.  It's vital that we realize that things are never completely hopeless, and that changes can happen when they're least expected.  We have to remind ourselves that we are never alone in our struggles.  We need to celebrate our differences and our uniqueness.  There is such beauty and promise in every corner, something we get reminded of any time we hear from people in our amazing community.  Know that such realizations are contagious - and needed - for all of us.

This was a truly painful and sobering way to begin a new year.  But we're determined to become stronger for it.  And we know we're in good company.