Pharyngula

The death of Aaron Swartz

Many of you already know that Aaron Swartz, an online activist, committed suicide earlier this week. I didn’t know much about him, but now I’ve learned two things.

One, he was a victim of depression. I’ve never experienced this personally — at worst I can say I’ve been sad and stressed at time — but let’s be clear about something: depression is something altogether different. Swartz wrote about his depression, and got across a little bit about what it actually feels like. This is good communication.

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.

Two, I’m outraged at the criminal abuse by the justice system that exacerbated his problems. The man was hounded to death, threatened with long prison terms by MIT and JSTOR, the journal archive service.

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

You might be wondering what awful crime he committed that justified arresting him and confronting him with a 50 year prison sentence: he downloaded scientific research articles and then made them available to others. Uh-oh. I’ve done this…just not on the scale of Swartz’s efforts.

This is the problem: not that Swartz opened the door to scientific research, but that we’re laboring under an antiquated system of scientific information storage that privileges profit-making over open access to the results of publicly-funded research.

Comments

  1. #1 Nigel Holmes
    January 13, 2013

    As your quotation shows, JSTOR in this case really wasn’t threatening him with anything.

  2. #2 Przemyslaw Grabowicz
    January 13, 2013

    It didn’t. Also the prosecutor was just doing his job. So everything is fine. Not.

  3. #3 Quixote
    January 13, 2013

    The arrogant government prosecutors who, in effect, murdered Aaron, as well as the irresponsible academics who shrugged their shoulders in indifference and the various media outlets that casually reported on his arrest, should think carefully about the lack of proportion in the American criminal justice system, and the devastating impact it can have on real lives.

    Authorities in New York have undertaken a similarly disproportionate assault on Internet freedom and academic whistle-blowing, arresting and prosecuting a blogger who sent out “Gmail confessions” in which a well-known New York University department chairman appeared to be eccentrically accusing himself of plagiarism. Again, there appears to be nothing but silence from the relevant communities. For further information on the case, see:

    http://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/about/

  4. #4 Yesca
    January 13, 2013

    His death is questionable in my opinion. These days government corporations have the power to kill anyone they see as a threat to their profits and make it look like a suicide. Anyone else wonder why anytime someone threatens corporations or high government officials they suddenly ‘commit suicide?’

  5. #5 Jay McHue
    January 13, 2013

    Obviously, the U.S. Attorney’s office and MIT should be classified as “terrorists” and pursuing justice via prosecution should be banned. It’s the only way to save the children computer hackers and stop the glut of deaths.

    You might be wondering what awful crime he committed that justified arresting him and confronting him with a 50 year prison sentence: he downloaded scientific research articles and then made them available to others (Wait…apparently, he didn’t even share them, but just downloaded them via MIT’s protocols). Uh-oh. I’ve done this…just not on the scale of Swartz’s efforts. Swartz was committed to Open Access.

    This is the problem: not that Swartz opened the door to scientific research, but that we’re laboring under an antiquated system of scientific information storage that privileges profit-making over open access to the results of publicly-funded research.

    Right. So, when can we expect you to make all your research and other material available to us free of charge. Oh, and how about that “Crappy Atheist” book you’re writing? Going to hand that out for free in order to promote open access to knowledge over profit-making? No? Didn’t think so.

  6. #6 Kenny Flagg
    North Dakota
    January 13, 2013

    For those that don’t know, there has been a massive amount of people following in Schwartz’s footsteps and uploading scientific journals to the public. The online movement has been using the hashtag #pdftribute in memory of Aaron.

    Governments and corporations can do their best to hold the internet back, but the ‘devious’ geeks will always be a step ahead.

  7. #7 tweet snipe
    usa
    January 13, 2013

    This death should be treated as murder by bullying. Shameful and Unamerican, those responsible should be publicly shunned, lose their positiions and charged with manslaughter. Behavior like this, in our country is becoming too acceptable.

  8. #9 Morbid Warrior
    January 14, 2013

    Depression is a serious illness. mild depression can be treated naturally with 5-HTP which is quite effective. More serious depression, I advise seeing a doctor.

  9. #10 Flo
    January 14, 2013

    I think we’ve all felt quite down, even horribly sad at some point or another. But one thing in this description really struck me:

    “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.”

    It’s very, very rare for me that doing something I enjoy, that even the best of diversions, will not manage to cheer me up at least a little bit. I may have cares, but I’m not fully stuck in that spiral of sadness.
    For this reason, I don’t think I can at all comprehend what it must be like to have this illness.

  10. #11 Cynthia
    January 14, 2013

    Aron Swartz was liberating information that was paid for by the public. JSTOR is a store for academic articles that the public have to pay unnecessarily high charges to view. Academics are trained by the state, their research is, for the most part, funded by the state. Academic publishers are just another example of corporate welfare. Swartz was liberating what, in any just society, belonged to the public.

    What gets me is that the people we allow to make our laws and prosecute them are so enmeshed in a world view that defies common sense. Their actions epitomize the venal nature of our ruling class. Why on earth are we letting these cold and calculating sociopaths rule us?

  11. #12 Hol717
    January 14, 2013

    People need to continue to talk about depression so that others can become educated on the illness, try to understand, and provide meaningful help.

    http://youcantmakelemonadeoutofthisshit.wordpress.com/

  12. #13 Dr Kiwi
    January 15, 2013

    Responding to Morbid Warrior:

    Mild-moderate Major Depressive Disorder usually responds well to non-pharmaceutical therapies (eg, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) – meds (eg, 5-HT) are usually not indicated.

    Severe Major Depressive Disorder (which I am in remission from) often needs an anti-depressant (usually a SSRI or a SNRI) as an adjunct to talk-therapy as above.

  13. #14 misterA
    moon
    January 15, 2013

    If he really killed himseld he would leave a message to explain the reason why to his family and friend. But he was not as egoist to leave people who love him that way.He was fihting for giving free information to people of the world. Could he kill himself without giving any explanation to people?

  14. #15 misterA
    moon
    January 15, 2013

    I realy doubd that aaron scwartz has suiside him self.
    If he really killed himseld he would leave a message to explain the reason why to his family and friend. But he was not as egoist to leave people who love him that way.He was fihting for giving free information to people of the world. Could he kill himself without giving any explation to people? After his long fight for peple could he abondon the world whitout giving a final word ?

  15. #16 MosesZD
    January 15, 2013

    JSTOR was a ‘hostile witness’ for the prosecution. You’d know that by the fact they refused to press charges and had to be subpoenaed to compel their testimony. MIT also refused to press charges.

    The short facts of the issue is, MIT detected some unusual activity on the network. JSTOR had something unusual going on. The Feds were brought in because it was suspected there was a cyber-crime going on. When MIT and JSTOR found out it was just mass downloading, they were done with it and withdrew their civil suits and declined prosecution.

    But the Feds went insane to ‘make a point’ about cyber crime. Even through there really wasn’t any actual crime as MIT’s network is open access and JSTOR has a bulk/open deal with MIT so all the articles were paid for in the bulk subscription license. But because he used a crawler, which violated JSTORs TOS, the Feds decided that was a cyber-crime under the poorly written statutes.

    Something MIT and JSTOR could not control. Yet here you are with the black-brush, making up facts, ignoring other facts, and getting all ‘indignant’ so you can justify your bullying people — MIT & JSTOR in this case.

    And, btw, since when did JSTOR and MIT turn into the US Attorney’s office? They can’t threaten long prison terms…

    I mean, really, that’s incredibly silly to assert.

    You should leave things like this to Ars Technica and Boing-Boing. They at least have a clue and have done some remarkable, and factual, work on the issue..

  16. #17 Sascha Vongehr
    http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme
    January 16, 2013

    Framing his suicide as murder is merely showing PZ’s biased perception; everything has to somehow support his political bias. Sadly, such framing may not help the issue of suicide one bit: http://www.science20.com/alpha_meme/did_aaron_swartz_commit_rational_suicide-100855

  17. #18 Ludic Fallacies
    Great White North
    January 16, 2013

    WOW

    I’m shocked at how poorly researched and how many mistakes, including contradiction between the author’s prose and the quoted material, is evident in black and white in this obvious appeal to emotion fallacy brain fart piece. Also the lack of understanding jurisprudence is shocking for a scholarly individual.

    I would bother explaining and tearing it down for you PZ but I’m most certain others can do it in a more eloquent way than I.

    It seems MosesZD is getting the ball rolling. I’ll just sit back and watch.

  18. #19 Reversed engineered brain
    January 16, 2013

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/ray-kurzweil-responds-to-ray-kurzweil-does-not-understand-the-brain

    At least edit your original post, which was -by the way – full of misunderstanding and misconception, if not an apology for your ignorance.

    1-2-4-8-16-32….. you may want to familiarize yourself with this pattern.

  19. #20 Eric Anderson
    January 17, 2013

    I think you owe JSTOR an apology. They declined to prosecute Mr. Swartz and had no interest in the most recent prosecution as the quote you provide makes clear.

  20. #21 David Marjanović
    January 23, 2013

    *sigh* Sorry for coming in so late.

    Right. So, when can we expect you to make all your research and other material available to us free of charge.

    As soon as the journals where he has published it let him.

    Because, you see, they own the copyright, not he. When you want to publish a paper, you almost always have to sign a copyright transfer form.

    In spite of this, scientists are generally quite happy to send their papers and supporting material to anyone who asks them. That’s because they don’t get royalties if you buy the journal or the paper.

  21. #22 Jim
    January 26, 2013

    “Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better”

    Anti-depressants can in-fact make you lose the ability to show emotion. There are so many pro-pharmaceutical activists and brainwashed people out there – that it is unlikely to register as a culprit in his death.

    P.S. I agree with people in the idea of prosecuting those that hounded him to death. Only judgement in the hereafter can do that (no not Karma).

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