Bullying Aaron Swartz

For those who haven't heard, Aaron Swartz was a 26-year-old architect of the modern Internet, and he is no longer with us. He was a gifted programmer and hacker and a champion for the essential freedom of information and a universal right of access to that information.

On July 19, 2011, Swartz was charged by Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, with a staggering 13 felony counts (adjusted up from four), threatening up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Swartz's alleged crimes were, essentially, downloading too many free articles from the online database JSTOR, which, in the entrapping legalese of the draconian and outdated 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, was transmuted into wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawful obtainment of information and damaging a "protected computer." In essence, the prosecution for the federal government argued that Swartz was guilty of possession of information with intent to distribute.

It should be noted that Swartz himself had legitimate access to these articles through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and that the prosecution, under the direction of Ortiz, continued to litigate despite JSTOR, owners of those "protected computers," declining to press charges.

He was found dead in his apartment this past Friday, of apparent suicide.

In life, Swartz was a prolific writer, commenting on politics and popular culture. He was also known to be candid in regard to certain aspects of his private life, in his blog Raw Thought.

In addition to his own struggle with depression, one of the notions that Swartz openly wrangled with was his sexuality and society's practice of necessarily labeling sexual desire as either "gay" or "straight." In a blog entry titled "Why I am Not Gay," Swartz rejected the political imperatives and ramifications of those classifications: "[They] transformed an action (having relationships with someone of the same gender) into an identity ("being gay")... People shouldn't be forced to categorize themselves as "gay," "straight," or "bi." People are just people... I'm not gay. I hook up with people."

Last year 16-year-old Brandon Elizares took his own life after receiving threatening text messages from classmates, many of which referenced his sexuality. In 2010 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a roommate captured a sexual encounter of his on a webcam and publicly shamed him through social media. In 2011, on the eve of a second national summit convened by the U.S. Department of Education aimed at addressing bullying in schools, a 14-year-old boy in New York state committed suicide after harassment from peers.

In mentioning these sad stories, I do not mean to equate Swartz's apparent suicide with the suicides of these young gay or questioning men, nor do I mean to argue that his non-normative sexuality somehow played a role. The circumstances of Swartz's suicide and those of, say, Clementi, are incommensurable. There are certain points of connection, though, and those connections highlight a fundamental threat to democratic governance in the U.S., and an Obama doctrine of protecting state secrecy through severe punishment in the Internet age.

The concept of "bullying" itself, and how and when we, as a society, choose to apply it, is the connection. According to the New York medical examiner, Swartz's life was taken by his own hand. Yet the question of what drove him to it remains, and Swartz's loved ones and supporters have demanded an answer.

Specifically, the question should be asked: Can a prosecutor for the federal government be said to have bullied Swartz, or to have contributed in a major way to his decision to take his own life? By extension, to the extent that Ortiz stood in proxy for the federal government, can and should the Obama administration be held accountable in some way for the end of this young man's life?

Some may think it is infantilizing or somehow reductive to compare Swartz's case with Clementi's. My intent in doing so is to say that the public outrage that accompanied those bullying cases, when brought to national media attention, should be just as present a force now. The nature of a bullying act, the repeated, aggressive behavior intended to physically or psychologically damage another person, seems universally applicable. And there seems to be a public consensus that those who bully others, and as a result drove that person to suicide, should be held accountable.

I believe that the prosecution for the United States threatened Swartz's emotional and physical well-being, and, faced with a court battle that he could not possibly finance with his own personal wealth, he took his own life. Ortiz bullied Swartz. Her office should be held responsible in some way for his death.

By extension, the Obama administration, in refusing to intercede, should be held accountable, as well. This administration has made the policing of information and "protection" of intellectual property a priority, appointing many trademark hawks and keeping an unnerving record of prosecution of whistleblowers in an attempt to stymy government leaks. The disproportionate charges for Swartz's alleged actions are symptomatic of an administration that has chosen to make an example of specific individuals (such as Bradley Manning), to be heads on pikes on the White House lawn.

Lawrence Lessig, a personal friend of Swartz and a Harvard law professor, seems to believe this is the case. "Please don't pathologize this story," writes Lessig, adding that "the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.'" It seems that his family and loved ones would agree, as well. A statement from his family and partner reads, "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."

Aaron Swartz's suicide demands and deserves public outrage and a call for accountability.