The suicide of boy-genius programmer and information activist Aaron Swartz has ignited a confusion of reactions, from academics liberating their journal articles in tribute to Anonymous, inevitably, breaking stuff.

Details have also emerged of Swartz’s failure to negotiate a plea bargain just days before his death. He was facing 13 felony charges, relating to the alleged download of nearly five million documents from the JSTOR archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that could have landed him in jail for decades. As The Wall Street Journal reported:

“Mr Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot Peters, first discussed a possible plea bargain with Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann last fall. In an interview Sunday, he said he was told at the time that Mr Swartz would need to plead guilty to every count, and the government would insist on prison time.

“Mr Peters said he spoke to Mr Heymann again last Wednesday in another attempt to find a compromise. The prosecutor, he said, didn’t budge.”

According to Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the case was draining his money, and two of his friends had now been subpoenaed. Both situations distressed him, she told WSJ. It was Stinebrickner-Kauffman who discovered Swartz’s body hanging from a bedroom window in his New York apartment.

Swartz’s alleged crime didn’t warrant such a lengthy jail term, wrote computer forensics expert Alex Stamos, who had copies of his entire digital life in his role as expert witness for his defence:

“Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly …”

MIT operates an extraordinarily open network, Stamos wrote, the most open he’s seen in his 12 years of professional security work. Anyone within range can connect to the university’s open, unmonitored and unrestricted Wi-Fi, and at the time JSTOR was freely accessible by anyone and everyone on that network:

“What Aaron did would better be described as ‘inconsiderate’. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper, it is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared Wi-Fi … but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35-year sentence.”

As WSJ pointed out, some in the internet community saw Swartz’s actions as a Robin Hood-like stunt — including, of course, unknown hackers using the familiar Anonymous brand.

After access to MIT computer networks seemed to be being disrupted late yesterday morning Australian time, MIT websites were then defaced, as information security jargon goes, with a tribute to Swartz:

“Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it.”

The message included the full text of Swartz’s “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” from 2008, which argued that “sharing” such information is a “moral imperative”. It also called for reform to computer crime and intellectual property laws, and the sacking of US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz for judicial overreach.

“We tender apologies to the administrators at MIT for this temporary use of their websites,” the hackers added in a postscript — rather disingenuously, given the trivial difficulty of posting a message online.

An Anonymous operation has also been announced, #OpAngel, in which the collective intends to thwart the Westboro Baptist Church’s plans to picket Swartz’s open funeral in Chicago — so no chance of that event turning into a circus. The operation also intends to “pursue reform within the Department of Justice and other government agencies”, though no details have yet emerged.

Somewhat more usefully, academics around the world have started releasing journal articles as unencumbered PDF files, flagging their work with the hashtag #pdftribute. A website has been set up to track the announcements on Twitter.

The US government has formally dropped charges against Swartz. A petition to the White House calling for Ortiz’s sacking has gained nearly 20,000 signatures; it needs 25,000 to require a formal response from the Obama administration. The Swartz-as-Che T-shirts have yet to appear. Thankfully.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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