Aaron Swartz

by Kieran Healy on January 14, 2013

A short memorial note from me, below the fold.

Like many millions of writers and internet users, I use things every day that [Aaron Swartz](http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com) had a hand in creating, improving, or catalyzing, whether directly or indirectly, well-known or less so: RSS, Markdown, JSTOR, other things.

Like many thousands of people, I had some contact with him via email, blogs, and twitter over the years. I gave him some data he asked for once. He contributed [guest posts](https://crookedtimber.org/author/aaron_swartz/) here at Crooked Timber. He had a terrific grasp of sociology, and a far better facility with it than many people who think they have a “sociological imagination”. He pushed something my way once that I stupidly failed to take advantage of. [I made him laugh a few times](http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/books2011).

Unlike some people, I was not his friend, or confidant, or co-worker, or family. To them, I can only say I am sorry. He was so obviously a remarkable man, even at a distance. I wish the U.S. government had not hounded him on such an empty pretext. I wish he had found some other way to cope with his illness.

*Bímid buan ar buairt gach ló*

*Ag caoi go cruaidh ‘s ag tuar na ndeor*

*Mar scaoileadh uainn an buachaill beo*

I am sorry he is gone.



Corey Robin 01.14.13 at 2:43 am

This from Swartz in April of last year (see Kieran’s second link) really jumped out at me: “I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work, dystopian fiction in the style of George Orwell. Yet I read it [The Trial] and found it was precisely accurate — every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”


JanieM 01.14.13 at 4:37 am

Kieran, how about a translation from the Irish? Google translate’s version doesn’t satisfy.


Joshua Buhs 01.14.13 at 8:34 am

Every day I am constantly sad
Weeping bitterly and shedding tears
Because our lively lad has left us
And no news from him is heard alas.



Harald Korneliussen 01.14.13 at 8:37 am


Rajeev Ruparell 01.14.13 at 1:30 pm

Thanks for this. It’s still so much to process.

Aaron contacted me a few years ago, enthusiastic about a website I’d put together featuring a worker-run newspaper from the 1840s. At the time the site was unfinished and long neglected: so neglected, in fact, that a few days after his message, it was taken down because I hadn’t paid the hosting company. Which I learned about from Aaron, who sent me this on the day the site went offline:

“Hey, Rajeev — what can I do to get voiceofindustry back online? I tried asking GoDaddy if I could pay your hosting fee, but they said not without your phone pin.”

So, before contacting me about the site being down, he had already tried to get it back up, *at his own expense*. This level of kindness and support was typical of Aaron, who not only encouraged me to resume the project, but played a major role in its completion: when the original issues of the paper were lost, he helped recover them; when I had trouble finding articles that were incorrectly cited, he read through the paper to help locate them. He helped fix technical problems on the original site, and suggested developers to work with when we decided to redesign it last year. When the project was done, he was excited about the new design, and sad that he couldn’t attend the launch event (though of course, he helped get the word out for it).

All of this was, of course, a tiny corner of the universe that was Aaron’s activism. But his support, and his willingness to reach out to a complete stranger, helped me to recover my own interest in justice issues, and for that I will remain grateful. I’m sad that I never got to thank him in person.

Thank you, Aaron Swartz.


Tim Wilkinson 01.14.13 at 1:59 pm


May I suggest a thread dedicated solely to the issue of ‘what is to be done?’ If anything good is to come from this sad situation, there is limited time to mobilise whatever resources can be mustered.

There are a number of tacks which might be taken and have been mentioned directly or indirectly on these threads.

1. Campaigning against the near-unfettered prosecutorial discretion, especially among local prosecutors, that appears to be baked into the US penal system. This seems to big a target, though that does not mean publicity and some kind of moral pressure might not be exerted so as to feed into any current or future moves in this direction.

2. Campaigning against the prosecutorial decisions in this particular case, without subsuming that campaign under (1). This would I think require a whistleblower to be sufficiently moved so as to disclose hidden lines of influence or control.

3. Concentrating on the substantive issue that AS was concerned with, for example by seeking to generate a norm against publishing in closed-access journals. This has been suggested on at least one other thread, and seems feasible. One question is what a successful boycott would be intended to achieve – this question would of course also inform the choice of exactly how ‘closed’ and ‘open’ access are to be defined. I’d suggest as a starting point that all and only journals which make all their articles available to the public within, say 3 months of publication might be considered ‘open’.

This does not imply making articles free to/via institutions. This kind of model is seen in the world of software: free for personal use; paid for – and thus supported by contractual obligations – and possibly with added nice-to-have features for business/institutional use. One such nice-to-have is of course access at the publication date rather than somewhat later. Another might be integrated search and citation-tracking features and so on – members of the general public can do without these – there are plenty of ways for the public to find citations, from Wikipedia to Google Scholar to (e.g.) PhilPapers; the bottleneck is in access to the actual content.

There might be less resistance to such a move than one might imagine, since I find it very hard to believe that any significant revenue stream is currently derived from selling article access to members of the general public – especially considering the ridiculous prices currently demanded (from memory, a single article tends to be charged at around $30; this is an absurd sum for most people, particularly when one considers that anyone seeking to do serious research will be looking at tens or hundreds of papers, often without being able to ascertain relevance, still less usefulness (classic papers of course tend to be available in published collections, containing perhaps 10 such papers of which at least two or three are likely to be relevant to a given project. Such collections are often available for less than $30, often significantly less, especially in used condition.)

4. Similarly, trying to institute a norm that all academics make ‘penultimate drafts’ of their papers available on institutional web space. Many do this already, and very grateful the rest of us are too. One might have thought this would be in authors’ interests in any case (assuming rather optimistically that they are interested in achieving the widest possible readership).

4. A similar campaign aimed at making JSTOR open access.

A further set of concerns relate to trying to improve the integrity specifically of empirical research, by instituting norms which require

A. all data (suitably anonymised where appropriate) and working to be made public, including data gathered but not used.

B. Hypotheses and methods of testing them to be committed to and recorded before data is gathered/inspected/analysed, and any ad-hoc changes to be similarly recorded, along with a log of what other work (especially exploratory analyses etc.) had already been copmpleted at the time of change.

I think there have been moves in this direction already, but if AS’s sad death is to be commemorated by a foundation or some such, these kinds of concerns might inform some of its activities in the future, and possibly be mentioned or alluded to in any manifesto or ‘mission statement’.

I wonder whether JSTOR and/or MIT might be prevailed upon to redeem themselves (so far as the former is appropriate) by agreeing to kick-start funding for such a foundation? Perhaps some staff from those institutions (as well as many others, no doubt) might wish to volunteer some of their time.

Obviously this may all look rather optimistic, as well as presumptuous – I have nothing much to contribute directly to such an effort – but a focused discussion on this seems worth having.


Tim Wilkinson 01.14.13 at 2:07 pm

The JSTOR proposal should of course be numbered ‘5’


Robert 01.14.13 at 2:17 pm

I’m not sure if anybody has linked to these:
Glen Greenwald in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free:

Alex Stamos about what he would have said as an expert witness for the defense in the Federal case:

Chris Hayes tribute on MSNBC’s Up:

About researchers releasing their research, in memorial, with the Twitter tag #pdftribute:


Daniel 01.14.13 at 2:50 pm

What is to be done? To who does the US justice department bow? Follow the money.

1) Chris Dodd.


Cary Sherman – RIAA
Colin Finkelstein – EMI Recorded Music
Bill Hearn – EMI Christian Music Group
Deirdre McDonald – Sony Music Entertainment
Terry Hemmings – Provident Music Group/Sony Music Entertainment
Kevin Kelleher – Sony Music Entertainment
Thomas Hesse – Sony Music Entertainment
Julie Swidler – Sony Music Entertainment
Luke Wood- Interscope Records
Jeff Harleston – Universal Music Group
Zach Horowitz – Universal Music Group
Mel Lewinter – Universal Motown Republic Group
Craig Kallman – The Atlantic Group
Paul Robinson Warner Music Group
Bob Cavallo – Buena Vista Music
Glen Barros – Concord Music Group
Mike Curb – Curb Records
Michael Koch[disambiguation needed] – Entertainment One U.S.
Tom Silverman – Tommy Boy Entertainment
Steve Bartels – Island Records
The RIAA represents over 1,600 member labels, which are private corporate entities such as record labels and distributors, and collectively create and distribute about 90% of recorded music sold in the United States. The largest and most influential of the members are the “Big Three” that include:
Sony Music Entertainment
Universal Music Group
Warner Music Group


JanieM 01.14.13 at 3:41 pm

Joshua and Harald, thanks.


Chris Williams 01.14.13 at 4:15 pm

When I shared one friend’s thoughts on AS’s death with the rest of my facebook mates, I wrote something to the tune of “If you think that he was one of the good guys, you might want to consider supporting (in the UK) the Open Rights Group and/or MySociety.org.” I added a caveat that I wasn’t completely sure that these were the best recommendations, but they were the best I could do. Were they?


PGD 01.14.13 at 5:59 pm

How about a simpler (but extremely difficult) goal — that some relevant Justice Department official actually lose their job over this? I would put the chances of this happening at close to zero, for obvious reasons. But it would have better incentive effects in the system then a lot of broader campaigns could.


Tim Wilkinson 01.14.13 at 6:16 pm

That would come under (2), I think.


nick s 01.14.13 at 6:28 pm

I added a caveat that I wasn’t completely sure that these were the best recommendations, but they were the best I could do. Were they?

In the UK, pretty much, yes. And EFF, for the US and more broadly. The specific issue here is that bad laws, construed broadly, become destructive weapons in the hands of prosecutors who measure their professional success by high-profile indictments and long sentences.


LFC 01.14.13 at 8:57 pm

@ T Wilkinson — just as a point of info connected w your (3): JSTOR is, as the title of this post puts it, cracking the door a little. I think your idea about delayed access to the public (3 mos after publication) is interesting. Don’t know whether publishers would be open to that idea or not. Currently some publishers seem to be responding to the access issue w what seem to be in the category of gimmicks, eg SAGE Open (one ‘open’ journal).


Leland LeCuyer 01.14.13 at 11:03 pm

Tim Wilkerson, I just want to let you know that I reposted your comment above on Google+ at http://bit.ly/W4e9Yy.


salacious 01.15.13 at 4:26 am

re: (6).1

It’s not clear that the proper response is fighting back against prosectutorial discretion writ large. There’s a pretty good argument to be made that a system predicated on prosecutorial discretion is better than the alternatives, and, further, that the pathologies of American criminal justice mostly lie elsewhere, especially in massive substantive overcriminalization. I’m not saying this argument is right, but merely that reducing prosecutorial discretion is by no means an automatic win. Hydraulic pressures and all that.

Of course, even proponents of wide prosecutorial discretion should agree that the AS case represented an epic failure to use that discretion, so they should be totally on board with (6).2. …


Jameson Quinn 01.15.13 at 4:37 am

I know this is a thread derail from respecting the man’s life, and I’m sorry. But responding to Wilkerson: on point 3, rather than giving extra features to institutional users, it would be easy and even (slightly) profitable to make non-institutional users watch a 30-second ad. It would also very effectively convey to any users at institutions which dropped the subscription that their employer is a cheapskate and they should do what they can to convince it not to be.

(Simple data point: in the past 3 months, I’ve downloaded a few hundred articles using techniques that violate the terms of service of JSTOR and my alma mater, and I am not ashamed. Any laws that Aaron broke, I’ve probably broken, and multi-decade prison terms for any of it would be totally unreasonable.)


js. 01.15.13 at 5:00 am

in the past 3 months, I’ve downloaded a few hundred articles using techniques that violate the terms of service of JSTOR and my alma mater, and I am not ashamed.

Me too! (Well, maybe not hundreds, but that’s just because I get lazy easily.) But that’s what’s so goddamn maddening about this. I mean, who hasn’t violated these stupid terms of service?

Re Chris Williams @11:

I suppose it would in part depend on how you wanted to show your support. If you wanted to go with what AS himself was involved with, Demand Progress might be one obvious thing to support (link to home page). I think I read that he was involved with Avaaz as well. As well as a thousand other things I have no doubt. (Having now read a bunch about him over the last few days, it’s actually not entirely comprehensible how much he did, nor how he did it.)


Cian 01.15.13 at 12:50 pm

Well I have violated them too, but I didn’t try to download their entire library of PDFs. There is something of a distinction.


Jameson Quinn 01.16.13 at 6:35 am

Distinction? Sure. But “tens of thousands are breaking a rule as a matter of course, so find one that stands out and throw them in jail for a few decades” is no solution, for any value of “stands out”.


Tim Wilkinson 01.16.13 at 12:34 pm

LFC @15: that sounds promising. There are more fundamental problems with the journal system of course; Leland LeCuyer’s link above links to a page which mentions some issues, which most here will be familiar with: For those in academia, journals are often viewed as a necessary evil. They cost a fortune to subscribe to, farm out most of their work to academics that do it for free, and employ an iron-grip on the scientific publication process. Most academics that I speak with would do away with journal organizations in a heartbeat if there was a viable alternative.

I don’t have much faith in ‘market’ based systems but I’ve taken a highly un-utopian approach so far; so long as compromise solutions don’t move us away from the path to further improvements, why not. Having said that, I’m not so sure I can envisage a consensus among academics – especially the most senior, who have obviously done OK under the status quo – in favour of doing away with the current journal system, in which each journal has a known focus, style, approach, outlook, etc, and of course ‘prestige’ – which is not to say that the existing system deserves to be maintained. Removing the corporate parasites from the equation would be nice – improvements to the submission, editorial and peer-review system, and its transparancy, could also be made, it seems.


Harald Corneliussen mentions another aspect which as collator of ideas I hadn’t included: change to the relevant criminal law:

Zoe Lofgren (D, California) has launched a concrete proposal reining in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act so that simple TOS violations would no longer be criminal, calling it “Aaron’s law”. Lawrence Lessig endorses this. This seems doable.

Certainly looks like something people could get behind.


Leland LeCuyer: glad you thought my comment worth re-posting. I’m not on ‘social networks’, and of course outsiders aren’t allowed to comment on them, so I hope you’ll see this. Mails to stax68.mail at gmail dotcom would reach me.


nnyhav 01.20.13 at 6:50 am

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