Ten years ago on January 11, Aaron Swartz, whose short time on this planet defies a thumbnail description, took his own life. He struggled with depressive episodes, but he was also staring down a lengthy sentence on bogus charges from a reckless and cynical federal prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, and her deputy Stephen Heymann, who was in his privileged position after his father, Philip Heymman, a former assistant U.S. attorney general, had worked closely with Ortiz.
Both Ortiz and Heymann had something to prove, with Ortiz hoping her time as U.S. attorney would be a stepping stone to becoming the first Hispanic governor or senator in Massachusetts. Aaron was a fellow at MIT, which had free access to academic articles in JSTOR at its library, and Aaron had bulk-downloaded millions of them. Ortiz took that act and was trying to turn it into more than a dozen federal crimes. Three years after Aaron died, I teamed up with Daniel Marans to look into Ortiz’s full career, and I’m proud to say the resulting investigation – though, more accurately, her own actions – ended her political career. She’s now in private practice. It’s the smallest possible solace: I’d much rather that Aaron was still with us instead.
We dedicated this week’s edition of Counter Points to Aaron’s memory, his life, and his legacy. We spoke with Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna about the way the valley and the internet have changed in the past decade. We talked with David Segal about Aaron’s fight against internet censorship and corporate control. We did a segment on his last two public tweets, which coincidentally focused on the idea to avoid the debt ceiling crisis by “minting the coin.” From the right, Emily talked about the way the federal government is making a major power grab when it comes to civil liberties and surveillance, using the unsympathetic January 6th defendants to accomplish it. And we talked with reporter Jason Cherkis about his groundbreaking article, “The Best Way to Save People From Suicide.”
I also interviewed Cherkis for this week’s edition of Deconstructed. He makes the case that it’s important that we talk openly about suicide. We often think that if we speak the word into the world, we’ll give somebody the idea to do it. Or that’s what we tell ourselves, since that idea doesn’t withstand a few seconds worth of intuitive scrutiny. More likely, we have so much fear and ignorance around it, we just want to pretend it doesn’t exist. The bigger risk, though, is not talking about.
Cherkis reports that more than 9 million Americans contemplate suicide every year. It must rank as the most common and profound phenomenon in our society that gets the least amount of discussion. This week we also lost Blake Hounshell, the great New York Times journalist, who had previously been at both Politico and Foreign Policy. His family said in a statement, “It is with great sorrow that we have to inform you that Blake has suddenly died this morning after a long and courageous battle with depression.” At 44, he leaves behind a wife and two young children, and if you’d like to help them out, a GoFundMe has been set up.
Even those who never knew Aaron have been harmed in ways they don’t know from his absence this last decade, and the same will be true for Blake. I didn’t know him well on a personal level, but I always felt like I did, and had profound respect for his intellect and his journalism. I did know Aaron well, but even if you’re unfamiliar with him, you’re probably familiar with some of what he produced, or produced in collaboration with others. He helped get Reddit going, for instance, and was given the title of co-founder, though it’s a more complicated story than that. He was also instrumental in developing what’s now called secure drop, which has allowed countless whistleblowers to safely send documents to the media. He helped develop the RSS feed as a 13 year old.
He was also dedicated to the free flow of information. In 2008, he downloaded more than 400,000 documents from the Westlaw database to comprehensively analyze them, and was able to show that payments from corporations to law school professors were resulting in law review articles that would then be used by those corporations later in lawsuits, significantly benefiting them in court. He published his findings in a Stanford Law Review article. That same year he downloaded some 20 million documents from the legal database PACER. The FBI tried to find a crime, but couldn’t.
As he learned more about power, he became increasingly involved in electoral and legislative politics, taking up the issues of corruption in Washington, fighting against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and trying to think deeply about how to respond to the climate crisis. He played a leading role in organizing the opposition to SOPA, which was a titanic 2011 battle over the future of the internet, in which cable companies and internet providers were trying to team up with the government to effectively lock in control of the internet. Aaron’s side of the battle called their goal net neutrality, and they eventually won, but it’s interesting to think now about how far we’ve evolved from there. Many of his allies at the time no longer look so fondly on the idea of a completely free and open internet. And into that gap, companies like Google, the ones he warned about, are cynically weaponizing fears of disinformation and hate speech to lock down their own control of the internet.
Members of Congress, both Democratic and Republican, spoke at his memorial service, which was led by his friend and collaborator David Segal, who joined us later in the show. With everything Aaron had accomplished at such a young age, Silicon Valley was his oyster. He could easily have decided to mint himself several billion dollars. Instead, he threw himself into making the internet, and the world at large, a better place. When today’s billionaires decide they want to get into politics, they start writing massive checks and spreading them all over. Aaron decided to go be an unpaid intern. The congressman he interned for, Alan Grayson, was one of those who spoke at his memorial, delivering a powerful eulogy.
The documentary on Aaron, The Internet’s Own Boy, is a great place to start if you want more on him and his legacy.
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Really thoughtful and important piece Ryan!
He was a narcissist, and his suicide was hastened by his enablers. His fans are oblivious.
Read this and learn something. Don't worry it's safe; it's the New Yorker.
"Since his death, his family and closest friends have tried to hone his story into a message, in order to direct the public sadness and anger aroused by his suicide to political purposes. They have done this because it is what he would have wanted, and because it is a way to extract some good from the event. They tell people that the experience of being prosecuted is annihilatingly brutal, and that prosecutors can pursue with terrible weapons defendants who have caused little harm. One of the corollaries of this message is that Swartz did not kill himself; he was murdered by the government. But this claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it. They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account—some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did.
Despite his public presence, he was small and frail and shy and often sick, and people wanted to protect him. He was loved intensely, as a child is loved."
The most I feel for Swartz is pity. Everything about this fiasco makes me want to puke.
"Aaron was too good for this world" I'm sick of the politics of spoiled teenagers.