Aaron Swartz’s Politics

Aaron Swartz was my friend, and I will always miss him. I think it’s important that, as we remember him, we remember that Aaron had a much broader agenda than the information freedom fights for which he had become known. Most people have focused on Aaron’s work as an advocate for more open information systems, because that’s what the Feds went after him for, and because he’s well-understood as a technologist who founded Reddit and invented RSS. But I knew a different side of him. I knew Aaron as a political activist interested in health care, financial corruption, and the drug war (we were working on a project on that just before he died). He was a great technologist, for sure, but when we were working together that was not all I saw.

In 2009, I was working in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office as a policy advisor. We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank. Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed. He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance. Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him.

Aaron also spent a lot of time learning how advocacy and electoral politics works from outside of Congress. He helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that sought to replace existing political consulting machinery in the Democratic Party. At the PCCC, he worked on stopping Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation (the email Aaron wrote called him “Bailout Ben”), auditing the Fed and passing health care reform. I remember he sent me this video of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, on Reddit, offering his support to Grayson’s provision. A very small piece of the victory on Fed openness belongs to Aaron.

By the time I met and became friends with Aaron, he had already helped create RSS and co-founded and sold Reddit. He didn’t have to act with intellectual humility when confronting the political system, but he did. Rather than approach politics as so many successful entrepreneurs do, which is to say, try to meet top politicians and befriend them, Aaron sought to understand the system itself. He read political blogs, what I can only presume are gobs of history books (like Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule, one of the most important books on politics that almost no one under 40 has read), and began talking to organizers and political advocates. He wanted, first and foremost, to know. He learned about elections, political advertising, the data behind voting, and grassroots organizing. He began understanding policy, by learning about Congressional process, its intersection with politics, and how staff and influence networks work on the Hill and through agencies. He analyzed money. He analyzed corruption.

And he understood how it worked. In November of 2008, Aaron emailed me  the following: “apologies if you’ve already seen it, but check out this mash note to Rubin from Lay. ahh, politics.” This was attached to the message.

This note, from Enron CEO Ken Lay to Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, perfectly encapsulates the closed and corroded nature of our political system – two corporate good ole boys, one running Treasury and one running Enron, passing mash notes. This was everything Aaron hated, and fought against. What I respected about Aaron is that he burned with a desire for justice, but also felt a profound desire to understand the system he was attempting to reorganize. He didn’t throw up his hands lazily and curse at corruption, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system. From founding Reddit, to fighting the Fed. That was Aaron.

Aaron approached politics like he approached technology. His method was as follows – (1) Learn (2) Try (3) Gab (4) Build. He was methodical about his work, and his approach to life – this essay on procrastination will give you a good window into his mind. Aaron liked to “lean in” to difficult problems, work at them until he could break them down and solve them. He had no illusions about politics, which is why he eventually became so good at it. He didn’t disdain the political process the way so many choose to, but he also didn’t engage in flowery lazy thoughts about the glory of checks and balances. He broke politics down and systematically attempted to understand the system. Aaron learned, tried, gabbed, and then built.

This is a note I got from him years ago, when we were trying to put together flow charts of corporate PAC money and where it went.

“Been playing around with the numbers tonight. Turns out corporate PAC money explains 45% of the variance in ProgressivePunch scores among Dems. Scatterplot attached. Right is progressive, down is no corporate PAC money. So you can see how all the people with less than 80% progressive punch scores get more than 20% of their money from PACs.”

This is a chart of power, one of many Aaron put together to educate himself (and in this case, me). Most geeks hate the political system, and are at the same time awed by it. They don’t actually approach it with any respect for the underlying architecture of power, but at the same time, they are impressed by political figures with titles. Aaron recognized that politics is a corrupt money driven system, but also that it could be cracked if you spent the time to understand the moving parts. He figured out that business alliances, grassroots organizing, and direct lobbying to build coalitions was powerful, whereas access alone was a mirage. He worked very hard to understand how policy changes work, which ultimately culminated in his successful campaign to stop SOPA in 2011. This took many years of work and a remarkable amount of humility on his part.

But he was driven by a desire for justice, and not just for open information. He wanted an end to the drug war, he wanted a financial system not dominated by Bob Rubin, and he wanted monetary policy run to help ordinary people. Some of his last tweets are on monetary policy, and the platinum coin option for raising the debt ceiling (which is a round-about way of preventing cuts to social welfare programs for the elderly). Aaron was a liberal who saw class and race as core driving forces in American politics. In a lovely essay on how he organized his career, he made this clear in a very charming but pointed way.

So how did I get a job like mine? Undoubtedly, the first step is to choose the right genes: I was born white, male, American. My family was fairly well-off and my father worked in the computer industry. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any way of choosing these things, so that probably isn’t much help to you.

But, on the other hand, when I started I was a very young kid stuck in a small town in the middle of the country. So I did have to figure out some tricks for getting out of that. In the hopes of making life a little less unfair, I thought I’d share them with you.

Making “life a little less unfair.” Those aren’t the words of a techno-utopianist, those are the words of a liberal political organizer. They remind me of how Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has described her own work. Aaron knew life would always be unfair, but that was no reason not to try to make society better. He had no illusions about power but maintained hope for our society if, I suppose, not always for himself. This is a very difficult way to approach the world, but it’s why he was so heroic in how he acted. I want people to understand that Aaron sought not open information systems, but justice. Aaron believed passionately in the scientific method as a guide for organizing our society, and in that open-minded but powerful critique, he was a technocratic liberal. His leanings sometimes moved him towards more radical postures because he recognized that our governing institutions had become malevolent, but he was not an anarchist.

I am very angry Aaron is dead. I’ve been crying off and on for a few days, as it hits me that he’s gone forever. Aaron accomplished more in 13 than nearly everyone I know will get done in their entire lives, and his breadth of knowledge and creativity in politics were stunning, all the more so since he was equally well-versed in many other fields. But what I respected was his curiosity and open-mindedness. He truly loved knowledge, and loved people who would share it. We used to argue about politics, him a hopeful and intellectually honest technocratic liberal and me as someone who had lost faith in our social institutions. We made each other really angry sometimes, because I thought he was too sympathetic to establishment norms, and he thought I couldn’t emotionally acknowledge when technocrats had useful things to say. But I respected him, and he frequently changed my mind.  I saw that what looked like stubbornness was just intellectual honesty and a deep thirst for evidence. He wanted to understand politics, because he thought that understanding, and then action, was the key to justice.

As I said, I am very angry that he is dead. I don’t want to get into the specifics of his case, because others have discussed it and the political elements of it more eloquently than I ever could. His family and partner have put out a powerful statement placing blame appropriately.

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.

I want to make a few points about why it’s not just sad that he is gone, but a tragedy, a symbol for all of us, and a call to action.

Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose. In previous generations, people like Aaron would have been treasured and recognized as the remarkable gifts they are. We do not live in a world like that today. And Aaron would be the first to point out, if he could observe the discussion happening now, that the pressure he felt from the an oppressive government is felt by millions of people, every year. I’m glad his family have not let the justice system off the hook, and have not allowed this suicide to be medicalized, or the fault of one prosecutor. What happened to Aaron is not isolated to Aaron, but is the flip side of the corruption he hated.

As we think about what happened to Aaron, we need to recognize that it was not just prosecutorial overreach that killed him. That’s too easy, because that implies it’s one bad apple. We know that’s not true. What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako – who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.

More prosaically, the person who warned about the downside in a meeting gets cut out of the loop, or the former politician who tries to reform an industry sector finds his or her job opportunities sparse and unappealing next to his soon to be millionaire go along get along colleagues. I’ve seen this happen to high level former officials who have done good, and among students who challenge power as their colleagues go to become junior analysts on Wall Street. And now we’ve seen these same forces kill our friend.

It’s important for us to recognize that Aaron is just an extreme example of a force that targets all of us. He eschewed the traditional paths to wealth and power, dropping out of college after a year because it wasn’t intellectually stimulating. After co-founding and selling Reddit, and establishing his own financial security, he wandered and acted, calling himself an “applied sociologist.”  He helped in small personal ways, offering encouragement to journalists like Mike Elk after Elk had broken a significant story and gotten pushback from colleagues. In my inbox, every birthday, I got a lovely note from Aaron offering me encouragement and telling me how much he admired my voice. He was a profoundly kind man, and I will now never be able to repay him for the love and kindness he showed me. There’s no medal of honor for someone like this, no Oscar, no institutional way of saying “here’s someone who did a lot of good for a lot of people.” This is because our institutions are corrupt, and wanted to quelch the Aaron Swartz’s of the world. Ultimately, they killed him. I hope that we remember Aaron in the way he should be remembered, as a hero and an inspiration.

In six days, on January 18th, it’s the one year anniversary of the blackout of Wikipedia, and some have discussed celebrating it as Internet Freedom Day. Maybe we should call this Aaron Swartz Day, in honor of this heroic figure. While what happened that day was technically about the internet, it should be remembered, and Aaron should be remembered, in the context of social justice. That day was about a call for a different world, not just protecting our ability to access web sites. And we should remember these underlying values. It would help people understand that justice can be extremely costly, and that we risk much when we allow those who do the right thing to be punished. Somehow, we need to rebuild a culture that respects people like Aaron and turns away from the greed and rent-extraction that he hated. There’s a cycle in American history, of religious “Great Awakenings”, where new cultural systems emerge in the form of religion, often sweeping through communities of young people dissatisfied with the society they see around them. Perhaps that is what we see in the Slow Food movement, or gay rights movement, or the spread of walkable communities and decline of vehicle miles, or maker movement, or the increasing acceptance of meditation and therapy, or any number of other cultural changes in our society. I don’t know. I’m sure many of these can be subverted. What I do know is that if we are to honor Aaron’s life, we will recognize him as a broad social justice activist who cared about transforming our society, and acted to do so. And we will take up his fight as our own.

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About Matt Stoller

From 2011-2012, Matt was a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He contributed to Politico, Alternet, Salon, The Nation and Reuters, focusing on the intersection of foreclosures, the financial system, and political corruption. In 2012, he starred in “Brand X with Russell Brand” on the FX network, and was a writer and consultant for the show. He has also produced for MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show. From 2009-2010, he worked as Senior Policy Advisor for Congressman Alan Grayson. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewstoller.


  1. different clue

    How might a couple or a few million concerned and aware average-quality people form a mutual defense and support network which could assist and support the few high-quality people when those people are pressured and persecuted either into prison or obscurity or into committing suicide?
    Assuming the Ruling Class is perfecting new methods of plausibly-deniable assassination such as carefully driving selected people to suicide . . . how does a support-and-respect group help those people to be pressure-resistant and suicide-proof?

    What kind of legal offense/defense insurance movement could be created and kept in steady existence to raise the money and people to protect the next target against the next
    persecutorial action plan? Would it be a good thing to build and organize such a visible overground support group into existence and keep it in existence for swift big-money big-response to the next such slow-motion assassination operation?

    It seems to the lay reader that Mr. Swartz percieved himself to be basically alone and helpless against a multi-billion dollar multi-thousand personell government. What kind of ready-to-go active support system would give the next target the reality-based impression of not being alone and helpless?

    1. joe


      there’s is nothing ‘new’ about the golden rule investment theory of politics, which goes without saying, but you have a habit for hyperbole and tend to bandy about ideas you like as if they will lead us all to salvation. clownish. and boring.

      1. Weeber

        I missed the part hwere he said that the golden rule was “new”. He just praised the fact that Aaron cared about reading those kind of books, something not common with young people. And he is not wrong on that.

    2. LifelongLib

      Yes, some reports (don’t have links handy) say Swartz was being financially drained defending himself against the prosecution. Quite a system where once you’re accused you have to pay for your own defense. Presumption of guilt, or what?

      Barring a system where the government provides legal help gratis, some sort of insurance system for criminal defense is an idea worth exploring.

      1. bob in ny

        just a note: i think the proposal is for a populist, community funded, response capable point-source of energy that by combining the resources of the many we can resist the power of the rich. it’s been done before. how would we do this today?

      2. Erenex

        From what I’ve read the judge forbade Shwartz from soliciting a defence fund? How is that not a violation of the presumption of innocence?

        It reminds me of how Gitmo lawyers could be considered disloyal to the state if they were too vigilant in defending their clients. If you create a system in which it’s impossible to win without spending large amounts of money, and then cap a defendant’s ability to fund his defence before the fact, you’re de facto insisting on a guilty verdict. A show trial.

        1. different clue

          Can that judge be removed from his bench for that? Can that judge be stripped of license to practice law? It sure sounds like that judge is one of several suicide-engineers who worked together to engineer Swartz’s engineered-suicide.

          As more becomes known, can that judge’s name, address, phone number, and photo be put up on websites so that people may politely voice to him their displeasure and concern over his actions . . . strictly within the limits of the law?

      1. different clue

        Thank you. I think it is also a very important question, because Aaron Swartz is not the first really-key activist to get suissassinated by government or bussiness personnel, and he won’t be the last really-key activist to get suissassinated by government or private personnel. Having a deep and broad support system, including legal support and money support; can help make the next target to be more suissassination-resistant or even suissassination-proof.

        The point has been made that other political-suissassination victims have been left basically alone to face their enemies, with insufficient support or cover. Here is what Al Giordano wrote about journalist Gary Webb who broke the story about President Herbert “Opium Poppy” Bush’s CIA flooding South Central LA with Contra crack and who then committed suicide under the ensuing pressure.

        A viable standby-support system ready-to-go whenever needed might prevent more such suissassinations.

  2. Susan Swartz

    Thank you Matt.

    “In six days, on January 18th, it’s the one year anniversary of the blackout of Wikipedia, and some have discussed celebrating it as Internet Freedom Day. Maybe we should call this Aaron Swartz Day, in honor of this heroic figure.”
    This would actually be ironically appropriate: In 1998/99, when he was 13, Aaron was a finalist for Philip Greenspun’s Ars Digita prize. His project was to create a website that would serve as a compilation of human knowledge, in categories like an encyclopedia, that would be open so it could be added to by anyone who fancied himself an expert in any field on any subject. This was several years before Wikipedia was “invented.”

    1. Matt Stoller

      I am so so sorry for your loss. All I can say is thank you for the son that you gave to us. I will strive to make sure the world never forgets him or the values he sought to promote.

      1. Stelios Theoharidis

        The few articles I have read seem to miss an important point. Aaron was taking publicly funded research, conducted by professors, paid for by university endowments and public grant monies, reviewed by publicly supported professors, and putting it on the public sphere for everyone to access.

        We pay for this research three times, first for its production in academic journals, second for the peer review process, and third for the priviledge of accessing it. The academic publishing industry makes huge sums of money from virtually free labor. It has few parallels other than the NCAA. He was doing a noble thing and the government, eternally the asinine protector of useless monopolies and business models that provide no value, decided to take on a wasp on with a missle launcher. However, the implications are far reaching.

        The journal publishing business is an unmitigated disaster and Aaron in a display of civil disobedience pushed against this behemoth. Maybe we will learn from this and force all publicly funded research to be accessible to the public. That is the type of informational freedom he seems to have been striving for. With all condolences regarding Aaron’s untimely death, his legal troubles clearly arose from his discomfort with the current state of academic publishing. As you are likely familiar with the value of utilizing political capital when it is available, I will attempt to be brief.

        If there is any moment to petition the White House to address making government funded academic research open to the public, I believe that moment is now. A public redress of the poor state of academic publishing may be a good way to honor Aaron’s memory and the spirit of his intentions when he put that laptop in a MIT closet. Clearly government response to his civil disobedience is a serious issue but I believe the public should be reminded of why he engaged in that civil disobedience in the first place.

          1. reslez

            Besides that the whole idea of “petitioning the White House” on a website has zero Constitutional basis, is not binding in law and can be happily ignored by whichever stooge is currently in office.

          2. Stelios Theoharidis

            You are right about the lack of legal basis. The petitions are meant to garner attention for the issue. The Whitehouse also just raised the threshold to 100,000 votes today in an attempt to backtrack on their former promises when they initially established the site.

            Political responsiveness and capture is another issue altogether and requires real political reform. You can’t really have legitimate policy reform without political reform. That is just how the bread gets baked in the cesspool we call our nation’s capital. Policy reform will continually be filtered through lobbyists, PR firms, politicians and their functionaries seeking golden parachutes, power-brokers, PACs, ‘think tanks’, etc. No matter how legitimate or necessary the policy reform it is always going to be secondary if the political system that produces it is corrupt, captured, etc.

  3. aidee

    Another thank you Matt in capturing the slow burn of corruption and the most unfortunate way that it brings tragedy to those that speak truth to power.

    Condolences to losing a dear friend and thank you for honouring such a soul.

  4. Susan Swartz

    Sorry…here is the relevant quote from The Chicago Tribune, June 2000:

    Swartz’s contending creation was The Info Network (www.theinfo.org), an ever-growing encyclopedia-like site filled with “a vast repository of human knowledge” focused on content — real information for people to use, as he calls it.

    The site works like this: Anyone can submit information about what they know in a totally open environment, which means they can add to the information freely.

    “In the style of the popular GNU/Linux operating system,”Swartz added.

    Users are allowed to edit another’s submission, but the program will always copy any original material so as not to permanently overwrite any copy.

    Swartz’ online encyclopedia include sections on art, with subsections on rubber stamping and square dancing; a section on science, with subsections on treating burns and finding out what a palindrome is; and a chapter on life, with subsections on genealogy and religion.

    It was two summers ago that Swartz starting toying with the idea of building such a site.

    “I spent my days typing away at the keyboard, bringing my ideas into action,” he said.

    Swartz said the kicker was when he realized (although it may have been easy for him) that it was really hard for people to post information online. “You have to set up a server, find a place to host it, learn HTML, or learn to use a Web editing program,” he said.

    So he got to work, programming the entire site himself, writing it in Tool Command Language, which Swartz said was best choice after much research.

    1. OpenThePodBayDoorHAL

      One of these days the death of someone like Aaron will be like the death of the Tunisian vegetable seller. The old order will go down in flames. Before then however we must organize and be ready. The story of revolutions from France through Spain through to Tunisia, is that KEEPING the revolution is the hard part, not starting it.
      It’s clear that the existing political institutions no longer serve any recognizable purpose for the actual people. This has been obvious for decades with the Repubs, who gave us Citizens United as if to prove this very fact. The Dems have only recently revealed their true stripes, ignore the rhetoric and just watch the actions. The current inhabitant of the White House just extended the war in Afghanistan, handed yet another multi-billion dollar banker giveaway of taxpayer money, refuses to let the public see the “legal justification” for America’s centerpiece war crime The Drone Program, and explicitly and actively protects the financiers of the largest drug cartels in the world. And that’s just in the last month or so.
      It seems the basic precepts of a new institution are so glaringly obvious and widely-held that organizing “Democracy 4.0” should not be difficult. If it was a startup I’m sure it would have no trouble getting funded.

      1. pws

        The reason why revolutions in places like Tunisia end up failing is because the patient, pulsating spider pulling the strands of a web that spreads all over the world will eventually turn its baleful gaze on them and undo them. The creature currently in the White House is just as bad as all of the human spiders who preceded him, and likely the ones who follow after him.

        Check out Honduras sometime, provided you have a strong stomach.


        That was all Obama and his supposed successor, Hillary Clinton.

        Obama, Holder, Ortiz, Heymann, a cop at Berkley spraying poison in the eyes of student activists? They are basically interchangeable monsters. You could switch Obama for Ortiz and Holder with Lt. John Pike, and get all the same outcomes. A police state at home, and horrors all over the world.

        Here’s a bizarre thought, Eric Holder’s sister in law, Vivian Malone, was blocked from enrolling in school by Governor George Wallace. And what have we got in Eric Holder? A decent human being, or a font of absurd, bottomless corruption? You’d have to be fooling yourself to think it was anything other than the later. You’d also have to be fooling yourself to think Heymann and Ortiz didn’t have the blessing of Holder for their absurd vendetta on behalf of the moneyed interests.

        It’s too bad Swartz wasn’t “too big to fail.”


        Then he could profit from people who leave human heads as calling cards, and get off with “Oh, well, boys will be boys.”


        What if the British had put Gandhi in front of a firing squad? Or just tossed him in the deepest, darkest hole they could find, far away from civilization, until he had been totally forgotten? What if the US had sent Martin Luther King to the Electric Chair, and just used live ammunition until the rioters gave up?

        Brave New World, or perhaps, “Welcome to Airstrip One.”

        Activists need to think, “I’m living in 1984, how can I fight the system,” it’s naive to think anyone, anywhere in the world is living in anything other than a corrupt police state (except maybe for a few places that have escaped notice while the Empire is temporarily busy elsewhere. They’re on the list though, never doubt it, just waiting their turn).

        I’m a little sad about Aaron Swartz for his naivete. He didn’t realize that he was a “terrorist” and would be treated as such, he was so unprepared for what happened. I think he really thought this was a system that still responds to peaceful protest.

    1. Francois T

      I’d love to question the prosecutor of this case: Who gave him his marching orders? Why was he so eager to pile up the charges? What was he promised in return? A promotion? A job at a white shoes firm?

      And above all, we must ask the question: Cui bono?

      1. Harald Korneliussen

        You’ve missed the point. The prosecutors (both the senior and the junior) didn’t need “marching orders”. Both of them have already spent much effort displaying to their employers how loyal they are. “Good” prosecutors adapting to the political situation act on their own accord to advance the current government’s values – and they are rewarded with promotions and political positions

        Carmen Ortiz had already been suggested as a governor or senate candidate, no doubt for showing that as far as she was concerned, the first amendment was no obstacle to getting the Bad Guy Tarek Mehanna.

        “Bad” prosecutors on the other hand, who actually try to be independent… They aren’t just bypassed for promotion as Matt Stoller says. Remember Bush’s big attorney firing? That’s the new reality, just like torture with impunity, unrestrained executive power to detain and kill is. It’s part and parcel of the new values that these prosecutors represent.

        There’s no top-down command structure to this. Would that it was, then it would be inefficient, and vulnerable to leaks. Instead, the judicial system has internalized the corrupt values that Bush began and Obama enshrined.

    2. wu ming

      “i think his wider political work is why the feds came after him so hard.”

      methinks so too.

      “Aaron recognized that politics is a corrupt money driven system, but also that it could be cracked if you spent the time to understand the moving parts.”

      in an era where every electronic communication can be read by those who hold the keys, we must assume not only that they knew that he knew that IT COULD BE CRACKED, but that the odds were high that he would eventually figure out HOW TO CRACK IT and release it to the rest of us if given enough time.

      “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

      may a thousand flowers bloom from the trampling of one who dared to shine so brightly in the sun.

  5. Maju

    I just knew about Aaron now upon his death but I find him admirable in all accounts: brilliant, brave, comitted with his fellow humans. I don’t care if he was anarchist or liberal or socialist or whatever, all I know is that he was truly committed to improve the lives of us all as well as he could imagine, and that’s more that can be said of most people. Therefore he deserves all the applause and not what your dear Capitalist dictatorship of private property (which he obviously fought against more than just mildly) brought upon him for trying.

    Sorry, Matt, really sorry for your loss in any case.

  6. Hugh

    Re information freedom, it is important to understand that information is a social good but rather than most of it falling into the commons, it is increasingly being sequestrated and/or expropriated by government and corporations. In some corporate cases, this is to extract rents on it, but mostly it is about control.

    Bradley Manning is alleged to have passed on to Wikileaks vast archives of secret government cables and reports, but the question is secret from whom? Hundreds of thousands of people and several foreign governments had access to the networks which Manning used and from which he allegedly downloaded material. What this means is that almost any government or group, not just the ones given official access, with a few dollars could also and very likely did acquire the information those networks contained. The only people not in on the Wikileaks material, the ones it was being kept secret from, were the American public, its ultimate owners. This is a classic case of sitting on information in order to control it, and by extension its rightful users, the American public.

    We see much the same with our insane copyright laws that extend copyright protection beyond the scope of human lifetimes, which in functional human terms means forever. Yet the few large corporations which control most copyrighted material don’t actually make any use of it. For every perennial “classic”, i.e. one that can still be issued at a profit to extract continued rents, there are thousands of other works that just sit there, but denied to the commons.

    Scientific journals are not much different. They publish articles on research that has been funded in whole or in part form public monies. So basically they are publishing information we paid for. The shelf life of most of their articles is probably about 3 months tops. Yet these publications want to maintain control of this knowledge just as badly as Disney or Time Warner do.

    Copyright law did not originate to protect the rent extractions of corporations. It was not even meant mainly to protect individuals and their works. It was meant to foster creative works by extending limited, reasonable protections to their authors so that society might benefit from their contributions, and that these contributions at the end of their limited terms should fall into the public domain and so spark yet more creativity.

    Yet with both government and corporations we see huge amounts of information being kept from the commons, that is us, far in excess of any needs of secrecy or reasonable return. The only answer I can come up with is that it is a question of control, that it is not we but the rich and our elites who own our society’s knowledge. In other words, they have replaced the public good with their class interests. What better way to control us than by setting themselves up as the gatekeepers to the knowledge we can receive. And what better way to subvert them than by making that knowledge as freely available as possible?

    1. fresno dan

      Very, VERY important points.
      Everyone should ask themselves this one question: If Daniel Ellsberg released the pentagon papers today, would he be in Guantanamo being enhancedly interrogated?

      1. Laughing Swordfish

        If Daniel Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers today, he’d be sharing a cell with Bradley Manning….

        It’s all of a kind. Aaron Swartz was the latest in a line extending from Daniel Ellsberg to Julian Assange to Bradley Manning. Every one a fearless fighter for the public’s right to know about government and corporate corruption, fraud, and abuse.

        What’s chilling is that the government penchant for secrecy and concealment has now been extended to cover big banks and corporations. It would be hard to imagine today’s New York Times or Washington Post defying the government and publishing that which TPTB want to keep hidden.

        Every American politician and corporate chief, in his heart of hearts, is a wannabe Bashir Assad who secretly envies the control and power of the world’s most despised despots.

        1. Aquifer

          “If Daniel Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers today, he’d be sharing a cell with Bradley Manning”

          Which makes it all the more ironic that he stumped for O’s re-election …

      2. Mark P.

        ‘If Daniel Ellsberg released the pentagon papers today, would he be in Guantanamo being enhancedly interrogated?’

        Hard to say, actually.

        Ellsberg was/is an almost historically unique case of elite dissent, and maybe not in a situation of vulnerability comparable to, say, Bradley Manning’s or Assange’s today. Ellsberg was mentored by Thomas Schelling, worked directly under Macnamara, and was on first-name terms with Henry Kissinger — he was an operator at the highest levels of the Cold War strategic elite in the 1960s, for God’s sake.

        If they’d caught him before he got the Pentagon papers out, he might conceivably have ended up someplace where nobody heard from him again, maybe even in a hole in the ground. But once Ellsberg had done what he’d done, if he played his cards right he potentially had some degree of protection by virtue of being who he was and knowing the people he knew. And he’d tried to go through channels by first taking the papers to senators McGovern and Allbright.

        In 2010, Ellsberg did say that he feared for Manning and for Assange, as he feared for himself after the initial publication of the Pentagon Papers, and called them “two new heroes of mine.”

        1. Yves Smith

          If you read his book, he assumed he would go to prison when he released them. His logic for proceeding was he had seen so many antiwar activists go to jail he could not in good conscience stand by and let the war go on without doing what he could.

          He also had no assurance that his releases would be picked up by so many newspapers and that the courts would not halt publication. If the Pentagon Papers had not gotten such traction, he would most assuredly been thrown in a very dark cell.

          And even when he was prosecuted, he was pretty sure he would wind up in prison. He says he was surprised at the acquittal.

          That was the 1960s. Look at how the courts have changed since then.

          1. Ed

            Daniel Ellsberg was hardly a lone individual, but rather part of a massive popular movement against the war in
            Vietnam. Power does acknowledge and accommodate mass movements, albeit reluctantly and often only to come back later with an even more vicious response. The courts didn’t protect D.E., except as a by-product of the fact that it was not politically feasible to prosecute him.

    2. Cynthia

      Aaron 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?

      1. different clue

        Because far too people ask that question or even think to ask it. And do the few who even ask that question yet think in terms of the government as being “enemy occupied” and in need of friendly conquest (friendly to us), friendly
        occupation (friendly to us), and friendly decontamination (the removal of all “humanoid” disease germs who are not friendly to us)?

        Until a critical tipping point massload of people think in those terms . . . how to conquer and occupy the government and purge the class enemy “humanoids” all the way out of it . . . the CEO government will continue to rule us the way it does now.

      2. Shawn

        I wonder how much tuition costs are dedicated to paying for academic journal licensing fees?

        As a law student I can only imagine how much of our tuition goes to unlimited access to Westlaw and LexisNexis. With regards to legal documents, Swartz once again played a great role in bringing attention to the fees the government charged for federal court documents (which are public domain) through his purchase of PACER content.

    3. David Cay Johnston


      it would be very useful to the world (and Manning’s defense) if documents establishing that some of the classified documents Manning is accused of illegally transmitting to Assange had in fact already been intercepted/leaked/obtained by others.

      Assuming your theory is correct, someone(s) should have the requisite skill to establish those facts for all to see. And it would be highly relevant if copies of these records turned up not just in the files of spy agencies, but of corporations, especially if they were selectively doled out to favored firms.

      On the other hand, if Manning acted as charged and he was the only source of leakage, that bodes very badly for him while also suggesting that despite hundreds of thousands of people having security clearances, official secrecy works quite effectively at preserving the veil.

      Knowing more about the security of secret cables and the like would inform debate about the appropriate boundaries for secrecy in government actions.

  7. Sleeper

    Although I did not know Aaron I morn his passing. Another voice for free communication silent.

    Odd how it is that it is quite common for folks under Federal investigation often commit suicide.

    The anthrax investigation
    The Washington Madame

    Are a few.

    Not to mention the notes from the FBI leadership to Martin Luther King suggesting he commit suicide.

  8. Kaline

    My best friend was a friend of Aaron’s. When she told me yesterday that he had died, she said “I always assumed Aaron would be here forever, because there would always be something to be mad at.” Her way of saying he was a fighter who couldn’t ignore the injustice around him. There would always be another fight, so there would always be Aaron…

    I am so sorry for your loss, her loss, our great collective loss not to have him fighting for us anymore. All we can do is love him, and miss him, and leverage everything he did in the last 13 years to keep on fighting.

  9. Aaron

    I must admit in my ignorance that I was not familiar with Aaron Swartz, but I’m sad I didn’t have the opportunity to meet him. I think you’ve done a nice job of conveying the message we all need to hear more loudly.

    This morasse of corruption isn’t going anywhere on its own accord. If we stand idly by without making our voices heard, we are complicit in the devolution of our moral framework. One of the best things I read last year was a brief history of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose.

    Here in America, we sit atop our perch of economic prowess under the elusion that things are perfectly under control, but they aren’t. The greed and corruption manifests itself in innumerate ways, but it all leads to pain and suffering, and many times death, for the people who are unfortunate enough to fall victim to its destructive reach.

  10. Ian Welsh

    Powerful piece, Matt. I never knew him, had never even heard of him, and yours is the first piece that has made me respect him and understand him and think I would have both liked and admired him.

    I did, however, already understand rage and sorrow. So many people have died, or suffered, who shouldn’t have, who didn’t need to, because of this system — and because of the people, in it, who make the decisions.

    Take care. Aaron wasn’t wrong about your voice.

  11. patricia

    Thanks for this post, Matt. I’ll be keeping you in mind over the next while, with your grief and also, I’m sure, rage.

    FWIW, I see you as a person like Aaron, someone with many gifts but most of all, integrity and courage. Please take care of yourself so that you remain around for a long while. Which includes, as Ian alludes, staying safe as possible.

    1. Matt Stoller Post author

      I think Aaron respected how angry I was at our politics. He was smarter than I am, but not quite as angry.

      I’ll take care of myself. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Expat

    Wonderful post, and my heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family and friends. I haven’t seen the following item posted, so I offer Dean Baker’s note:

    Underscoring the importance of this tragedy for all of us, Baker reports:
    “While both M.I.T. and JSTOR, the system he was alleged to be hacking, asked to have the charges dropped, the Justice Department insisted on pressing the case, threatening Aaron with a lengthy prison sentence.”

    President Obama owes Aaron’s family and friends an apology.

    1. JimC

      Aaron’s case seems similar to Don Segilman’s- the ex-governor who was sent to prison because he ticked off Karl Rove who was able to get an Attorney General to do his dirty work. What is missing from the selection of Attorney
      General’s that those who obsess about wins and losses instead of Justice get the jobs?

    2. Cynthia

      MIT is one of the universities heavily tied to Big Military from what I found out. Swartz being a hero in trying to spread the education wealth unlike Obama and the feckless Democrats pretending to “spread the wealth” and then calling people making 400k a year “middle class”, I could see how the monied and military elites would hate people who tried to help make it easier for people to properly manage the information they come across on the Internet. The death of Swartz is another reason this administration deserves to be impeached and convicted.

      H/T: Common Dreams

      1. different clue

        Real Democrats would work with Tea Party Republicans to make it happen. Or at least to make the attempt.

        The Tea Party Republicans could try to impeach over their grievances and the Real Democrats could try to impeach over our grievances. A first step might be to “write our Representatives” . . . because any Hearing on the Consideration of Articles of Impeachment (or whatever the official terminology is for that) would have to start in the House.

  13. Capo Regime

    A tragedy to loose such a talented, passionate and principled young man. He acted on his beliefs and was indeed as Greenwald points out motivated by the public good. What was done to him was absolutely horrible. What is even more horrible is that this is done to so many people and that the systems of power keep many talented young people marginalized. The corruption that hurts people is broad based from Family Courts to the DOJ in Boston, brutality and mechanistic evil goes about destroying lives. Condolences Matt on the loss of your friend.

  14. A Siegel


    Thank you for this moving, thoughtful, educational, and almost certainly painful to write tribute to / reflection on Aaron.

    One contemplation, amid the double-barrel use of gov’t power against Aaron, is how this connects to a broader space. I wonder about also taking a look / documenting prosecutorial abuse (perhaps at higher direction) against those working for / risking themselves on causes that work to strengthen civil society and build up our future.

    From my ‘domain’, how about Tim Decristopher: http://www.peacefuluprising.org/tim-dechristopher (And, well, this is part of the whole ‘Green is the New Red’ (http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/) domain.)

    And, as someone who read/was aware of Aaron’s work/achievements from ‘a distance’ (the occasional read/contemplation and little more), you are added more to our understanding of a truly heart-breaking situation of seeking to break the will of a genius who had changed/could change the world for the better rather than embracing / leveraging / enabling that capacity to help strengthen society.

    Thank you, again, for this tribute to your friend.

    1. Klassy!

      I immediately thought of Tim DeChristopher too. The DOJ chose to prosecute him even though the lease auction he had taken part in was declared illegal. And, they tried to paint him as someone who aimed to profit financially from his act of civil disobedience.

  15. dSquib

    A very strong piece, Matt.

    Aaron evidently loved information but even as someone with greatly more of it than most, and better faculty to make sense of it, he still wanted as many people to have it as possible. It’s important to remember how unique this is, especially in the world Aaron was broadly a part of. The politics of information is about intellectual property but more generally about class and elite entitlement.

    This section of the SHAME project profile of Adam Davidson comes to mind:

    After living in Baghdad for a year, Davidson had to suddenly flee the country in 2004, fearing for his life after being accused of working for the CIA. Later, Davidson admitted that he had a tight and undisclosed relationship with occupation officials, who regularly visited his Baghdad home and revealed to Davidson that the situation was much worse than was being reported. Rather than telling his listeners as a journalist should, Davidson protected the occupation authorities: “The ones I liked I’d invite over to the house. I mean, I genuinely liked them, but also we’d get them a little drunk on wine. We’d tell them, hey, tonight everything’s off the record. And we’d get real information…we’d get these people over to our house, they’d have some wine, and they’d be like, ‘oh, it’s so much worse than you know.'”

    For Davidson the virtue of information is not on shedding light on corruption but on being part of it, at the “big boy’s table”, knowing something that others do not not through greater intelligence but greater access.

  16. Brindle

    Thanks, Matt.
    Eloquent, but eloquent in how you share of his basic humanity. I feel I now have a glimpse of what Aaron was like.

  17. AbyNormal

    Matt, as I read your piece/peace I sighted Your Courage.

    In the days to come, may your pain find comfort in the impassioned labor You shared with Aaron.

    If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    Thank You Matt for all you do and please go ‘long’ safely.

  18. Stephanie

    Thanks Matt. It must have been hard to write this….even to stay seated at the computer. I’m so glad I tuned into NC today to read it, though, and I’ve passed it along to others.

  19. Benoit Essiambre

    Aaron seemed to take a computer programmer perspective to politics. He saw the similarities in laws and computer code and tried to find loopholes that he could carefully exploit for the betterment of society. He analysed the flow of powers in the legal and political system in terms of game theory (see his review of The Dark Knight http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/tdk which makes parallels with his own struggles). He wrote actual code and programs to analyse political data.

    In the end it didn’t matter because the DOJ decided that no one was going to beat them at their own game and the subtlety of law machinery didn’t matter when they had the resources to send a legal tank to squash him.

  20. Lisa

    I am ashamed to say I never heard of Aaron until his death. Reading the tributes, including this beautiful one, make me glad of his friendships and the ways he was acknowledged and cherished while he was alive. Thank you for this.

  21. Paul Tioxon

    – 3 –
    This book is not about assassinations, at least not solely about assassinations. It is not just another book about who murdered President Kennedy or how or why. It is a book about power, about who really controls the United States policies, especially foreign policies. It is a book about the process of control through the manipulation of the American presidency and the presidential election process. The objective of the book is to expose the clandestine, secret, tricky methods and weapons used for this manipulation,and to reveal the degree to which these have been hidden from the American public.


    Richard E. Sprague is a pioneer in the field of electronic computers and a leading American authority onElectronic Funds Transfer Systems (EFTS). Receiving his BSEE degreee from Purdue University in 1942,his computing career began when he was employed as an engineer for the computer group at NorthrupAircraft. He co-founded the Computer Research Corporation of Hawthorne, California in 1950, and by1953, serving as Vice President of Sales, the company had sold more computers than any competitor. In1960, he became the Director of Computer Systems Consulting for Touche, Ross, Bailey, and Smart. Hebecame a partner in that company in 1963, and started its Advanced Business Systems Department in 1964where he stayed until 1968. In 1968 he established Sprague Research and Consulting for ComputerInformation Systems Consultation. He is currently also Consultant to the President’s Commission on EFTS and full time consultant to Battelle Memorial Institute of Frankfurt, Germany. ………….

    From 1976.

    You have my full sympathy and sorrow for the loss of your dear friend. He sounds like the bold leader we wished was in the White House. I do not want that young man’s death to go unnoticed, nor do I want it to go without consequences for his political tormentors. The above info is from another computer expert from a previous generation who also sought out the structure of power in the United States and came to the conclusions he wrote up in his book.
    You all have the link. The point is not that there is startling new information in a book put out over 35 years ago. The point is, the brilliant mind looking at the same nation can see the outlines of the same power networks, with slight modifications of the names and actors. But, the networks of power are still in place. Richard E. Sprague made pioneering advances in the dawn of the computer age just as Asron Swartz pioneered in the internet age. I would urge people to look up Richard as well as anymore political writings of Aaron. We can all learn from them

      1. different clue

        A legitimate political party or movement would work to repeal that law, among many other laws. But that law might be a good one-among-few to start with.

  22. Chris Rogers


    Good post and comments detailing why we should all be sad/concerned that the Internet/WWW has lost a considerable force do good and decency in our globalised world.

    I only hope that those who contributed to the demise of a true genius are ashamed of themselves – given that this is too much to ask of them, perhaps fate will catch up with them in one form or another to pay for such a crime against the commons – this being natural justice!!!!!

    1. Cheka

      Just in case anyone doubts that Aaron’s personal destruction was directed at the highest levels of government, Secret Service Goon Michael Pickett participated in the US government’s extortion campaign.

    1. jrs

      Yes let’s post humously pardon a dead man, by putting our name on another worthless white house petition.

  23. Mary Mac

    “he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system.”

    Maybe he found more than we know.

  24. Jill

    The silencing of dissent, of principled voices for justice is a curse. Because of that systematic silencing, what we understand, what we as a people will even consider is completely constricted and confused.

    I notice that in every sphere. Most everyone I know understands this economy is crashing and burning yet the explanations of what is happening are bizarre. Global warming, a dire emergency, is dismissed, trashed and ignored. The truth about USGinc. wars of empire is erased by threats to those who speak truth and by use of weapons of mass entertainment, which keep people chained into rigid fixation on “celebrities”. Our commons; the environment, our minds, our hearts are taken by the powerful and used against us.

    I had a dream of an eagle which stood half as tall as a tree. Around it where other small-sized animals, some predator, some prey. What they all had in common is that they were the clients of the eagle. They did not move as the eagle, which was obviously deranged, tried to reach down and snap up one or another of the other animals. They just let it happen. The eagle was so large, so deranged that it couldn’t even snap up its intended prey, it just grabbed any prey it could. In my dream I wondered why no other animals acted to stop it.

    That is also my waking nightmare. Why are so many of us not moving to stop injustice? Here was a man who did try to stop it. I am sorry for his loss.

    1. zygmuntFRAUDbernier

      It’s hard to tell information from disinformation. Not always, but some of the time. So some disinformation passes as information for some of the people some of the time. I think you have a big tangled web …

  25. Donald E Niman

    My condolences to you and Aaron’s family and freinds for their terrible loss.

    Sadly, I did not know about Aaron until I read about his death.

    I am deeply angered by the way Aaron was treated. His treatment was way out of line given the nature of his alleged non-violent law-breaking. I have the impression that many violent criminals are treated better.

    It seems obvious that Aaron’s efforts to end government corruption fed into the egregious misconduct of various government and perhaps MIT officials.

    Whitehouse petition to posthumously pardon Aaron Swartz:
    White petition to remove US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz:

    Donald E. Niman

  26. Michael Olenick

    Great piece, Matt.

    Aaron will be sorely missed.

    I don’t know if Aaron was really mellower than you or just expressing things like the engineer that he was. It takes a lot of patience (understatement) to get to be a programmer and business developer of Aaron’s skill. While he grew beyond those roles that same patience fueled a long-term determination to bring about social change. So he persevered, but you shouldn’t mistake a quieter tone as anything other than knowing that yelling at a computer only tends to waste time, which delays bringing about the longer-term goal.

    American Oligarch’s are soiling their own bed with the ever-escalating bad behavior. I’m not sure who they think is going to create the businesses that make and keep them rich if they discourage the thinkers. Who knows: maybe they hope to knock out more “financial innovation” that obliterates everybody else besides them. That is probably the reason MIT and JSTOR moved on; as a practical matter they need Aaron, and others like him, more than he needed them.

    1. different clue

      They are not concerned with being “absolutely” rich. They are only concerned with being “richer than the rest of us”. They are happy to lose half of their wealth if they can be assured that they can destroy both halves of everyone else’s wealth. Their primary pleasure is sadism and their primary drive is social cannibalism. They ultimately seek zero wealth for us, not more wealth for themselves.

      1. LifelongLib

        They think all wealth rightfully belongs to them, and actually would if the labor unions and New Deal/Great Society hadn’t stolen it for the undeserving. They’re just getting their own back.

        1. different clue

          So a question arises . . . if we had an absolutely assured way to make them lose both halves of their wealth at the cost of losing one half of our wealth, would we apply that method?

  27. backwardsevolution

    Aaron said: “I must admit in my ignorance that I was not familiar with Aaron Swartz…”

    I had never heard of him either. Why did this happen? Why wasn’t there a huge outcry all over the Internet about this? We all would have helped him.

    Come on, people! We’ve got to do a better job of helping each other out, holding each other up.

    When we hear of injustice, we need to speak up, get it out there AND SCREAM IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS. Let’s not let another go down without standing up for him. Had we done that, I’m quite sure Aaron would still be here.

  28. Jazzbuff

    “Aaron is dead because the institutions that govern our society have decided that it is more important to target geniuses like Aaron than nurture them, because the values he sought – openness, justice, curiosity – are values these institutions now oppose.”

    This and the total corruption that the system supports is why the U.S. is rapidly declining.

    Thank you for the wondeful rememberance.

  29. Tom Parsons

    Many thanks for this, Matt. People need to know.

    Also, my deepest sympathy for your personal loss and pain.

    Intellectual distaste for the present corrupt system will never be enough. One-dimensional analysis of financial corruption, legal trickery or captured courts will never be enough. Even body counts are not enough. Names and faces matter, and you have helped to show what real heroism is, so different from the grab-a-gun cartoon Rambo images that Hollywood sells.

  30. LeonovaBalletRusse

    “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system” — Make that CRIMINAL “Justice system”

  31. ex-PFC Chuck

    I’m one of the many commenting here who was unaware of Aaron Swartz before news of his passing. This post is a wonderful tribute to someone who must have been a very special young man. What a loss!

  32. Jon

    We have lost someone very special. My heart goes out to his friends/family. Let’s all try and learn the lesson that’s being broadcast so clearly.

  33. Jennifer

    More of the same, thank you for the long post. The Dean Baker post sums up a lot of what you said, as well as the Elks article in the Jacobian (may have that spelled wrong but it is available online). I hope the role of MIT really gets highlighted, like all large research institutions MIT is ultimately a corporation and its values are such.

  34. Fat_Fascist

    Matt: Your post truly moved me and shows both you and the young Mr Swartz as examples of what all of us should aspire to.

    I hate the benign sounding phrase “prosecutorial overreach.” Prosecutors – including the federal prosecutor in Swartz’ case – have extraordinary discretion to destroy (or not) the lives of people who they investigate and charge with criminal misconduct. Even assuming Aaron wrongfully downloaded the files at issue, the decision of the U.S. prosecutor to charge him with 35 years worth of felonies is questionable to put it mildly. His judgment should be reviewed closely by his superiors at DOJ and if found deficient, he should be removed from office.

    The problem obviously is that this happens almost daily. Defendants are overcharged and its considered a standard tactic to obtain a plea. An extreme example was discussed here on NC re Thomas Drake who was basically charged with treason for blowing the whistle on a $billion failed govt contract in the ultra secretive NSA. Drake was literally persecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office, facing life in prison as an alleged traitor to his country until the eve of trial when they dropped all charges except one minor charge for mis-using a govt computer.

    The case against Swartz is not something as melodramatic as “prosecutorial overreach” and we should call it what it is: the despicable wanton misuse of the overwhelming resources and power of government to annihilate an individual (in this case an individual with an exceptionally strong desire to help the public) who “may” have violated some rule, regulation or statute. The alleged victim JSTOR’s decision to not pursue this should have informed the U.S. prosecutor how to proceed but instead a 35 year jail sentence was pursued.

    Whether the U.S. prosecutor in this case is the type of person who should be vested with the power to bring the hammer of the govt down on citizens of the U.S., should be decided in light of his comment that: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

    Stealing is stealing? This is the height of stupidity not to mention a complete abdication of any possibility that this attorney could exercise reasonable judgment in prosecution cases. So a starving person stealing a loaf of bread should feel the full force of the law come down on him because… do I even need to go on?

    Since stealing is stealing there is no need to exercise discretion in prosecution cases according to this wise U.S. attorney. Hence we don’t need this U.S. attorney to decide anything about what prosecutions to pursue. He is serving no useful purpose. Lets be rid of him. Now.

    Granted the U.S. attorney was trying to justify the prosecution to a reporter. But how many people have been prosecuted based on this nonsense? Every U.S. taxpayer and more importantly the familiy of Aaron Swartz desrve a public servant who would at least have the subtleness of intellect to refrain from making such a stupid rationalization for charging a young, brilliant idealistic U.S. citizen with felonies amounting to 35 years in prison. Regardless of whether Aaron downloaded the files or not.

    But perhaps we should congratulate the Mass U.S. Attorney for pursuing this extremely important case and steadfastly not pursuing a single defendant who raped their own companies (and taxpayers) in pursuit of bonuses and profits that lead to the great recession. At least a few of these potential defendants committed their offenses in this U.S. Attorney’s district.

    OK we can’t lay the Administration’s policy of giving a free pass for these financial crimes at the feet of this U.S. Attorney. But he should ask himself just what his reason for existence is at DOJ if he is zealously pursuing someone like Aaron while doing nothing about the horrific financial crimes perpetrated against the American people.

    Aaron Swartz RIP.

    1. different clue

      How about calling it . . . “persecutorial oppression”? Or some better word that others may come up with?

  35. Mark Erickson

    I certainly agree that this piece is great and the writing is very good. … But I do want to push back on the “depression is not why he died” line. It was certainly part of the reason. And I don’t know why you think medicalizing is a bad thing. Removing some stigma of weakness or self-causation, in favor of medical explanations of clinical depression has been a very good thing. It has made it easier for some people to get help.

    And help is the number one thing to think about with clinically depressed people. Treatment is possible and suicide can be prevented. As great as this post is, I’m sure you wished you never wrote it and thousands of other people would have rather never read it, even those who didn’t even know who Aaron was, like me.

    I have to ask, was Aaron getting treatment? It’s important to realize that no matter how brilliant, or hard working, or compassionate you are, depression can be more than you can handle. You have to get help and the people around you need to recognize when you need it, but can’t ask for it.

    Aaron was probably in that place. His fear of asking people for money is a clue. But I’m not judging Aaron. I’ve been there. Luckily I choose a less lethal method and was too scared to complete it. I’m trying to impress on those who know someone with clinical depression. Watch all the time and say something a lot of the time. It may help.

    1. nothing medical about it

      But the US government can and will push anybody to the point where suicide is the only way out. The US is a torture state. It specializes in mental torture. That is how criminal US officials lie to themselves: that the suffering they inflict is only mental, not physical, so under phony US law it isn’t torture, they tell themselves. When the government pushed Manning to the brink, they were delighted, because that let them justify further inhuman and degrading treatment under pretext of preventing self-harm. Government torturers do it for punishment and they do it for efficiency: think it’s an accident that military suicides exceed battle casualties? They’ll let suicides mount until the costs equate for optimal expenditure of life. Death is a resource for the USA just like oil. This is a sick, perverted state that can only sustain itself by force.

    2. jrs

      Many of the treatments barely work. Most anti-depressants only barely beat placebos. So maybe medicalizing rather than being a bad thing is simply often ineffective? I don’t have any info on whether Aaron was getting help, maybe he got help and it simply failed as it often does, there’s plenty of people on several different anti-depressants that still claim to be depressed (though everyone who is depressed is not suicidal). And, of course, it’s hard to pretend everything is great when the government is hounding you and threatening you with decades in prison.

      1. Yves Smith

        To amplify, litigation is draining emotionally even when you have enough money and don’t face the prospect of a long prison sentence. The cost of defending a normal Federal criminal case is $1.5 million. Given the large number of counts, this likely would have been much more costly.

        And re meds, agreed 100%. Swartz sounds as if he was only occasionally depressed, but it was severe when it occurred. I have relatives who are chronically depressed, and they’ve been walking big Pharma experiments. They’ve found the meds either don’t work on them or provide relief for only a few weeks or months. Brain chemistry appears to adapt to the meds.

        1. different clue

          I’ve been depressed, and I’ve had depressions, and I’ve had lost loved-one grief; and the three states felt very different from eachother to me.

          I’ve taken the good old tricyclic amines twice. More recently I’ve taken one of the modern SSRIs. I am very slowly weaning that to zero so as to be very confident my brain is re-adjusting to its absence. Ramping up the SSRI led to various effects I was not warned about ( sleeplessness, paranoia, a couple auditory or visual hallucinations at work, etc.) After being on full dose for a while and percieving it to be working, I also noticed certain unexpected side-effects which were interesting. So it was clearly doing something. Did it un-deppresionize me or did I use its presence to placebo-ize myself? Interesting question subjectible to round-and-round debate.

          The concept of “placebo” is itself unfairly dismissed as unreal. “Placebo” should be regarded as the other side of psychosomatic. The “placebo” effect is biophysiologically real even if internally generated within the properly suggestible-ized brain-mind system. It would be a major medical advance to understand the placebo effect as being cure-assistive in some cases, and efforts should be made at learning how to elicit the placebo effect.

        2. Mark Erickson

          Just to be clear, I am not denying situational factors are causal. They always are. But suicide is multi-causal and denying clinical depression (symptoms lasting longer than two weeks) is at least a cause is wrong. This is what Stoller said: “Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died. Aaron is dead because…” This statement is indefensible.

          As for meds, I won’t get into the effectiveness debate, I’m sure not to change any minds (intended). However, it is silly to use ancedotes about relatives in that debate.

    3. lambert strether

      “[M]edicalizing is a bad thing” because it’s reductive, and reductive in a way that prevents us from examining larger institutional and cultural factors, or from making office holders in those institutions accountable. For these reasons, medicalization is a very popular narrative in the popular press!

      Medicalization is also dehumanizing to Swartz, since it removes him from his full human context.

      That’s not to deny there’s a medical/health/spiritual aspect to all of this (depression impacting the spirit as well). But yes, I think “medicalize” is bad….

      1. ScottA

        In the final 100 years (1%) of a 10,000 year “civilization”, with inchoate signs of collapse all around us, it would probably be hard to properly define “depression” anyways – as it might be reasonable to expect that many of the most mentally healthy people might be quite naturally freaked-out in certain ways, simply due to their awareness of the collapse starting to occur all around us.

        tl;dr: maybe he was “depressed” because life sucks these days.

      2. Mark Erickson

        My comments were in no way reductive or mono-causal. By ignoring Aaron’s brain, you are removing him from his full human context. In fact, I can’t think of anything that denies one’s humanity more than discounting their subjective experience.

        Medicialization is obviously a freighted word. I have no problem with it and I’m fine with mental illness as well. (I have a chronic mental illness myself, and it is a part of me. It is empowering to me to be able to say my illness can be treated, like so-called physical illnesses. I’ve been stable for many years now, btw.) Use, health, physical, brain/mind, whatever you like.

    4. Mark Erickson

      I just want to add that besides this thread, there is only one mention of any form of “depress.” Below this thread one person says “the situation depresses me.” Not one other person thought to push back on Stoller’s claim: “Aaron suffered from depression, but that is not why he died.” This is an example of the problem we face preventing suicide.

      What’s so infuriating is that every single person reading this can do something to prevent suicide – educate yourself and others, watch for the signs, and say something to people you know when called for – and have a low threshold for saying something. In comparison to these concrete actions, decrying “the institutions that govern our society” is tilting at windmills.

  36. sierra7

    America holds great promise…..if the citizenry have the courage to implement that promise!
    So far, history tells us that that fight comes and goes in fits and starts…..from the very primary fight for a “bill of rights” which was a force against total domination by totalitarianism…….

    “An Incrdible Soul” (Aaron Swartz)

    Watch his incredible speech:
    “Freedom to Connect”
    “Cyber activist and computer programmer Aaron Swartz took his life on Friday at the age of 26. We air an address of Swartz’s from last May where he speaks about the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA — a campaign he helped lead. “[SOPA] will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared,” Swartz said. “Next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.”

  37. Max

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    I hope people who are saddened and angered by this awful outcome can reflect on the choices they made, choices which have led us here.

    It is time for liberals to stop pretending that Barack Obama is a good man. It is time to stop rationalizing support for him and politicians like him. Stoller lists a number of examples of the type of pervasive corruption that killed Aaron and *all* of them were done by Barack Obama.

    You cannot mourn Aaron and still support the type of people who make and protect the system that killed him.

    Wake up. Stop patting yourself on the back for electing the “lesser evil”. It is still evil and we can do better. It would be a bigger shame if Aaron’s passing didn’t spur people to truly change their ways.

    1. Chris Rogers

      You have managed to hit the nail on the head – it would have been better for the USA to have Romney as President, rather than a continuation of the Obama rightist tripe you are presently suffering under.

      At least with a Republican fruit case in the Whitehouse the remaing left of the Democrats and Unions could have combined to undermine the new fascist oligarchy that inhabits Washington – regretfully, having been duped again by Obama, you have the worst of both worlds, a fascist tryranny and impotent liberal/progressive centre.

      USA wake up!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      1. different clue

        Third Party voters will find that very painful to contemplate. I voted third party in the end because..because..because..

        If Michigan’s entire third party vote had gone to Romney instead, would Obama have lost Michigan? So far, I have not looked up those numbers.

    1. Cynthia

      The sad fact is that we are running very low on people that dare to speak out against the ever-spreading culture of control and intimidation from our so-called Governments. I have nothing like the understanding Aaron Swartz had of the world, but the situation depresses me. If the battle for control of the internet is lost, one way or another we are all screwed, so it is time for each person to do what they can to respect and carry on the work that he did.

      This is a man who stood for freedom of information, who could have taken the big money that certain more well-known internet pioneers took. And now he’s dead, but I somehow know that when we look back a few years from now he will be remembered as more relevant than the corporate versions of what he was pioneering. Internet as a tool of liberation, not as a way to commodify and make a few people rich. May your name and your deeds live on Aaron. Rest in Peace.

  38. dale pues

    Until these past hours I did not know an Aaron Swartz. Now I have read others words about him and his own words as well. He was an exceptionally fine human being. His death is a terrible loss for everyone. Only twenty six years old. Aaron Swartz was, is, a national treasure. And it will be treasures like Aaron Swartz who will save this country if that is possible.

  39. Chauncey Gardiner

    Thank you for a beautiful eulogy to a remarkable person, Matt. That we have lost Aaron Swartz is a tragic loss for us all.

  40. DolleyMadison

    The Banksters get CAUGHT actually defrauding homeowners, cheating investors, bankrupting insurance companies, and ruining the integrity of our courts and land records – and yet get bailouts and tax breaks and fly on Air Force one and dine at the Whitehouse. As sad as we all are about this young man’s death, how many people did more than shake their heads when he was alive. I know from experience that talk is cheap but finding someone to believe and act on your behalf is rare. Where are he lawyers, the judges, the professors, the press, etc? Why are you silent in the face of the most corrupt presidency, regulatory regimes and justice department in history?

    1. streamfortyseven

      @different clue: you write “Something which I doubt he was working on, but yet which might be in the spirit of making information available to people who are not “digital” and will never be “digital” might be a way of making the vast amount of online information stored in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine accessible and available to normal people.”

      Here’s a start: http://www.aaronsw.com/2002/arcget/

      “arcget: Retrieve a site from the Internet Archive
      Servers die. Companies collapse. URLs change. The Web is a very messy place. Thankfully, the Internet Archive is there to record it all. But once it’s in there, how do you get it back? Sure, the Wayback Machine is nice for getting a couple pages, but anything more than that and it’s a royal pain. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some easy way to get back that data? arcget is that easy way.”.

  41. Chauncey Gardiner

    And Matt, please be very careful about the feelings of anger you expressed. Anger can be very damaging, both to oneself and to others in unforeseeable ways.

    1. DolleyMadison

      Anger can also be galvanizing – IMO we need to even angrier. If you are angry you are not paying attention…

  42. Johannes

    Matt – when I read your words, I start to cry again.

    I understand how precious your friend has been for you.

    I understand better why it mattered what he did. Why it is a loss for us all.

    It is like the whole internet it sad.

    And I understand that we are, in some way, in a bad and dangerous situation. That corruption and injustice is threatening, that it is about to destroy our societies and might undo even that crazy, admirable bit of civilization that we’ve managed to build.

    Somehow, we have to act if we want a life worth living.

  43. Aquifer

    There is a great deal of speculation, it appears – but in the end, ISTM the only one who knows why Aaron chose suicide is – Aaron. Suicide stems from despair – loss of hope. Did he share these feelings with anyone? Frankly, it’s none of our bloody business if he did – but why is it that some in his position choose to end it, and some to persevere – if we could just figure that out we might be able to keep the Aaron’s of the world alive until we can squash the bloody system that threatens to squash them …

  44. mary

    Well I feel thoroughly bloody awful about this. I mean it. How many times have I bumped my head against “JSTOR” while trying to learn about a subject? Has Chomsky chimed in yet?

    Thanks Sierra 7 for posting the “Democracy Now” links, the program is very good, everyone should watch.

    To the Swartz family and friends I offer my deep condolences – and I feel a certain outrage on your behalf too. I am shattered.

  45. 4jkb4ia

    Matt, this is wonderful. Over a very few tributes, I am learning about a life sufficiently inspiring that I am sorry I only really knew about it when it was over.

  46. scraping_by

    One theme of yours that resonates: acting in public positions to get private jobs.

    US attorney Stephen Heymann used the same theory of information as property that the RIAA when it goes after music downloaders out here in the real world. The same fencing in of the public domain as the publishers and media giants. The same poaching of pubic records that’s been pushed as a business model for twenty years. The same overreach, the same persecution, the same skewed perspective, the same indifference to human consequences.

    Even if he, and Ms. Ortiz, and the rest of the US Attorney’s office who hounded Mr. Swartz are made unwelcome on the public payroll, they’ve got a great “intellectual property” practice waiting for them.

  47. different clue

    As I read all these comments the first thing I think is that no one can really know anyone else’s pain. Those who have lost loved ones one way or another can acknowledge that
    another’s pain is painful, and not try to presume any more real understanding than that.

    And after reading all the politics (and adding some to it) I find myself wondering . . . how do the living Kennedy’s feel, even now, to hear perfect strangers talking about “who shot John? who shot Bobby?” Such talking by us strangers is to be expected, but if actual friends and family ever say “enough of that just now”, we should try and understand.

    I have seen two themes in these comments . . . how many people feel somehow derelict in their duty to have not heard of Aaron Swartz before now. Since I am just a small normal person, it seems perfectly reasonable that I would not have heard of someone so far above my own braingrade. He was clearly Top Level in his own Domain, and I just don’t move in such circles. Perhaps it was the people and communities, in particular the on-line digital-affairs community; who were derelict in their duty to begin informing us right from the start about this case and the stakes involved.

    The other theme appears to be “what would Aaron Swartz want us to do now?” I agree with those commenters who appear to be saying that pursuing his various lines of work and developing them for relevant usage by the vast majority of dull-normal people such as myself would be honoring his work by keeping it aggressively alive and growing. He appeared to want to make information reachable and usable to people like me who can only understand the computer as an appliance and who bitterly resent efforts to make us care about the chips and the programs inside that computer.

    Something which I doubt he was working on, but yet which might be in the spirit of making information available to people who are not “digital” and will never be “digital” might be a way of making the vast amount of online information stored in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine accessible and available to normal people. If anyone here knows anyone who is connected to the ongoing Internet Archive project, I hope they will think about how to make all that information available to the majority of us instead of being functionally inaccessible the way it is now. Not everything on the Internet Archive is Friday Cat Videos. Some of it is high value material on the order of The Soil And Health Library.

    1. streamfortyseven

      You write: “Something which I doubt he was working on, but yet which might be in the spirit of making information available to people who are not “digital” and will never be “digital” might be a way of making the vast amount of online information stored in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine accessible and available to normal people.”

      Here’s a start: http://www.aaronsw.com/2002/arcget/

      “arcget: Retrieve a site from the Internet Archive:
      Servers die. Companies collapse. URLs change. The Web is a very messy place. Thankfully, the Internet Archive is there to record it all. But once it’s in there, how do you get it back? Sure, the Wayback Machine is nice for getting a couple pages, but anything more than that and it’s a royal pain. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some easy way to get back that data? arcget is that easy way.”

      1. different clue

        Interesting, and serious thanks. I will read it and see if I can understand it. If I can understand it I will then give it several serious good hard tries.

  48. Francois T

    Here’s something that struck me hard today about Aaron death. I was listening to All Things Considered (which should be named Nothing Important Shall Be Considered) and they brought in Declan McCullough from Wired. Great reporter, knows his stuff.

    But the host (Audi Cornish I believe it was)…OMG! She managed to pilot a 5 minutes interview with Declan w/o touching ANY element of the case, the prosecutor’s outrageous behavior, the fact that Aaron was looking at a potential prison sentence longer than a child rapist and the likes, etc.

    Any listener not familiar with the case would’ve been totally in the dark regarding the behavior of this government toward Aaron.


  49. Geof

    This is a wonderful post. What struck me most is Stoller’s understanding of corruption: “Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest.”

    When Swartz was charged, many – including Swartz’s friend and supporter Lawrence Lessig – said it is wrong to break a bad law. The debate still rages. This is an authoritarian logic that in the last instance confirms the status quo. A bad law may be worse: it may be illegitimate. If the law is always right, and the law is the possession of the powerful few, then we too are possessed. When the rule of law is lost, it is not because the law is broken, but because it is owned. We cannot sustain the rule of law by granting it unconditional supremacy. No law can be too big to fail. Aaron Swartz may or may not have chosen the most effective tactic, but he was not wrong. He was more right than any law he may have broken.

    Around copyright and other issues there is a frequent call to be moderate, to be reasonable: there is no us and no them, we should compromise, seek “balance” – often between the public interest and… some other interest. But there is an us, and there is a them. There are those who own the law, and we who are forced to follow it. The ones who make the law do not apply it to themselves. We see it again and again, from Wikileaks to OWS policing, from telecoms immunity to the financial crisis. Power is reinforced by some of us as we “follow” the law but in fact use it at our convenience: academics who assign their copyrights, for example, regularly say one thing and do another, reinforcing the exclusion of the great unwashed as they themselves circulate papers with impunity. If Swartz broke the law, that does not distinguish him: what does is his attempt to serve others and critique a corrupt system.

    The owners of that law and that system used Swartz. They possessed it; through it, they possessed him. To them he was not a human being, but a tool: a way to evoke fear in others. That abuse was conducted by the government, but it is also written into the law. Millions without his high profile are routinely subject to abuses at least as bad yet arouse no wave of public sympathy. Copyright is hardly the worst law around; patent law, to pick one of its kin, routinely kills people. For better or for worse, it is copyright that arouses popular passion and action. Swartz’s persecutors meant his fate to replace consciousness with fear. May it do the opposite.

    We live in a time when we might be jailed for downloading public knowledge. The global temperature rockets up, oceans and oil are depleted (in a “knowledge economy” no less): policies enacted by elites accelerate the process, while replacing education with credentialing, abusing reason and defaming science through the media conglomerates they own. For a society hurtling to disaster, a moderate response is no virtue; what is rational may not be politically reasonable. Many commentators have described Swartz, 26, as a kid, as though to excuse his radical action. Stoller, to his credit, calls him a man. I wish more of us were as grown up as he.

      1. Geof

        I was very careful to write “if” and “may.” By disagreeing with those who said he did so and criticized him for it, I certainly did not mean to support their premise.

        1. Yves Smith

          Sorry for coming down on you. I’m sensitive because the “broke the law” meme tends to be prejudicial even when all the right caveats are included (which most others don’t employ).

  50. R.U. Sirius

    I’m sorry to be a bit impersonal but I wanted to ask a political question because I’m planning to write about transparency in our currency system. Matt Stoller, you mentioned a small victory for Fed openness and the inclusion of something related to that in Dodd-Frank. I have the understanding that a bill to audit the Fed was killed by Democrats in the Senate this summer. I’m curious what the victories are and if any results can be found.

    Thanks for this great and moving piece and all your work.
    R.U. Sirius

  51. Dahlia

    I was not aware of Aaron Swartz before until a couple of days ago; but since then, I’ve been reading everything I find about him, by him. This article is wonderful in the way that it pulls so much together about Aaron. What an extraordinary being! It’s incomprehensible to think about how much more he could gave given us. As someone who has lost more than one close friend to suicide, I feel a kinship with the ones he left behind. I am so sorry for your loss and commend you for being able to write this article when you are experiencing so much pain and anger.

  52. Aussie F

    What a terrible tragedy. The real crooks are feted, wined and dined, subzidized, lauded and given the best seats at the table. Meanwhile a creative individual who simply tried to secure humanities cultural patrimony for us all is driven to his death by a collection of venal, talentless hatchet men.

  53. stephanie

    I’ve learned a bit more about Aaron over these last few days thanks to columns like these. I just sat down to read the latest issue of “Makeshift” which bills itself as “A journal of hidden creativity” and think that he probably would have appreciated it. Interestingly, the latest issue is on communication.


  54. Sam Pratt

    Even if he never had done anything else, the invention of RSS alone was a titanic achievement for which Aaron Swartz should be immortalized.

    I started using RSS almost as soon as I heard about it and content providers started implementing it… RSS revolutionized my reading habits. It allowed me (especially with the advent of early readers such as NetNewsWire) to easily organize and scan a much larger number of news headlines daily than I could manually.

    As a result, I was able on a daily to identify a much larger number of articles and blog posts that interested me and benefitted my work than was possible on a site-by-site, manual basis.

    So thank you, Mr. Swartz, for RSS, as well as your many other achievements and brave stands on behalf of public access to information. Information is, after all, supposed to be the lifeblood of democracy, to the extent that our society still values an informed populace.

  55. CMD

    ‘Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.’ – Edna St. Vincent Millay

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