Though it’s not the posthumous complete reprieve from the crimes he’d been accused of that his followers, friends, and family had wished for, Aaron Swartz’s court case has been dismissed due to his death. The man known as Aaron Swartz was found to have ended his own life just this past week, his legacy of pushing for freedom of information appearing very much to be living on in his wake. The announcement this week from the US District Court stops the case that accused Swartz of involvement in the theft of digital documents from JSTOR, a journal archive, a case where he faced decades in prison time if found guilty.
It is US Attorney for the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz who called for the end to this case due to the untimely death of its defendant. The official filing reads as follows and makes the situation extremely clear, if not abundantly oversimplified:
“Pursuant to FRCP 48(a), the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, hereby dismisses the case presently pending against Defendant Aaron Swartz. In support of this dismissal, the government states that Mr. Swartz died on January 11, 2013.” – Document 105, Case 1:11-cr-10260-NMG, filed 1/14/2013
Aaron Swartz was a co-writer of the original specifications for RSS (Rich Site Summary aka Really Simple Syndication) back when he was 14 and creator of one of the original pieces of Reddit, that being his own “Infogami.” BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow, a friend of Swartz’s, lets us know in a tribute that in Swartz “singlehandedly liberated 20% of U.S. law” by spending “a small fortune” on pay access to a government-run site called PACER where he moved court records from that site to a public site – legal, but costly.
Swartz founded Demand Progress, fought the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) (both of which he was instrumental in helping bring down), and became entangled in a case which would ultimately (or so it seems) lead to him taking his own life. This case (that was just dismissed) suggested that Swartz used MIT’s computer networks to download 4 million (or more) articles from the digital library of academic journals known as JSTOR back in 2010 and 2011. The initial claims can still be found at the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts.
“The indictment alleges that between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to break into a restricted computer wiring closet in a basement at MIT and to access MIT’s network without authorization from a computer switch within that closet. He is charged with doing this in order to download a major portion of JSTOR’s archive of digitized academic journal articles onto his computers and hard drives. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization that has invested heavily in providing an online system for archiving, accessing, and searching digitized copies of over 1,000 academic journals. It is alleged that Swartz avoided MIT’s and JSTOR’s security efforts in order to distribute a significant proportion of JSTOR’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites.” – US Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts
Though JSTOR declined to prosecute and “urged the government to drop the case” according to CNN, Swartz was going to be tried for “wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.”
Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst at the ACLU, summed up the situation as follows:
“These are the kinds of things you’d assume the government would use in a serious hacking case — identity theft, millions of credit card numbers stolen, hacking into protected government databases or corporate networks. Aaron was accused of downloading too many articles from a website that anyone connected to the MIT network could log into.” – Soghoian
Now that Swartz is no longer on trial, those that teamed up with him while he was alive will continue to push for a more open system for the distribution of information across the web in as free a manner as possible. Though Swartz’s death was tragic, his public persona’s goals will be sought with his life and acts as a catalyst for change through the future – this isn’t the last you’ll hear his name.