Few stories in the news recently have disturbed me as much as that of the young Internet pioneer and activist, Aaron Swartz, who hanged himself in his apartment two days ago. Aaron was the type of geek and free thinker who you’d just know would be a multimillionaire, and indeed he became rich from the sale of the business he co-founded, Reddit. The money made no difference; Aaron was a tortured soul, even before a US prosecutor disgracefully got Aaron in his sites and all but decided to ruin his life, forever. The story frightens me, it sickens me, it reminds me of how Kafkaesque the US legal system can be and of how corporate interests get away with murder (almost literally) while the little guy, especially the kind like Aaron who challenge the system, can be pulverized. No, I can’t stop thinking about it.
The media have been saturated with this story; if you have no background you can read this or this. The government helped to hound Aaron to death. I can’t say their harassment actually killed him, but it was surely a very major factor behind his decision to take his life.
Aaron had a long history of depression, so perhaps the harassment was just a co-factor. He wrote a heartbreaking blog post about his illness nearly six years ago. His pain — depression, migraines, severe stomach illness — colonized his body and often made his life miserable.
Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.
At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.
He was clearly not well, and his friends in various articles posted yesterday noted how he could turn on them, almost violently. But they all loved him, and saw him as a noble person determined to do what he thought was right.
But then something happened that put him over the top and magnified his depression exponentially. It is a complicated story, but this is it in a nutshell:
He was facing multiple felony charges; if convicted he could have gone to jail for thirty-five years, and owed over a million dollars in fines. His “crime” was that he downloaded too many articles from JSTOR, an online service providing access to academic articles. He downloaded more articles than JSTOR’s terms of service allowed, therefore he was in violation of their terms of service, therefore (according to the prosecution’s interpretation) he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges — this was federal prosecutors deciding to make an example. Now they have unintentionally succeeded, tragically and in a way that I hope, for the sake of their own souls, they never anticipated. Stubbornly, and characteristically, Aaron was unwilling to take a plea deal and be labeled a “felon” when he had done nothing wrong; he insisted on pleading not guilty.
It may be a little more complicated. He downloaded millions of documents because he felt academic articles that JSTOR stored should be available for free to the public. Their authors made no money from the fees JSTOR charged readers, only JSTOR did. It was a quixotic, foolish thing to do. It was not well thought through. But it absolutely did not justify the prosecutor throwing at him multiple felony charges that would have landed him in jail for as much as 50 years, with fines above $1 million, let alone his legal fees.
Something is so wrong about this. JSTOR, the defendant, wanted to drop the whole case. But the prosecutor was adamant and found multiple counts with which to charge Aaron for a wholly victimless “crime.” Just a few weeks ago, HSBC was forced to pay a $1.9 billion fine for laundering money from murderous Mexican drug cartels. They did this knowingly, breaking the law and greedily accepting the blood money. The fine was the equivalent to “about five weeks of income for the bank.” Think about that. Those who are powerful and politically connected get away almost literally with murder, breaking serious laws and committing serious crimes. (I strongly recommend you read the article to see just how depraved our justice system is.) Here, a kid (and at my age anyone under 30 is a kid) did something foolish but hurt absolutely no one. He had to live for nearly two years under the specter of knowing he could go to jail for decades. And be bankrupted. While those who commit heinous crimes are given what amounts to even less than a slap on the wrist. I believe it is safe to say he was bullied to death, and I wonder how the prosecutor is feeling as he goes to bed each night.
Aaron will probably be forgotten by most in a few days, overshadowed by other stories. But I wanted to memorialize him on my blog because his story encompasses so much of what I hate and fear: people in government abusing their power, the hopelessness and helplessness of those who fall into our legal web, and the needless death of a young and brilliant life by his own hand.
With this post I just want to keep his memory alive a little longer. I realize it’s not China-related and won’t draw comments, but I can’t just be silent about a story that’s consumed me for the past two days. This is an outrage, a tragedy, and a crime.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.