NEW YORK — In 2013, Internet activist and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz ended his life while facing up to 35 years in prison for hacking.
Swartz faced multiple charges for breaking and entering into an MIT wiring closet and downloading academic journals, including two counts of wire fraud and 11 counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Swartz, who was battling the court, also battled with depression. Prosecutors dropped the charges after his death.
I first met Swartz’s father, Robert, last year as he explained his mission to fight for his son’s memory by helping to change outdated laws. He wanted answers about why he lost his son.
His son’s story is now the subject of a new documentary called “The Internet’s Own Boy: The story of Aaron Swartz.”
More than a year after his death, Robert Swartz still seeks answers, which he discussed with me this week.
How would you describe your son’s impact?
Robert Swartz: He was someone who tried to understand technology and use it as a force for good. He came up with the notion of Wikipedia before Wikipedia started. It was very clear that he felt that putting academic research behind a pay wall was wrong and that it limited the diffusion of knowledge.
11 out of the 13 charges against your son were violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Do you believe the law is outdated?
There’s no question the law is outdated. At the moment, that law makes it a felony for you to give your password to HBO to a friend. That has to be changed.
You believe the criminal justice system failed your son. If it weren’t for the charges, do you believe Aaron would still be alive?
How does that make you feel?
Like one who’s gone into the abyss.
Describe what Aaron went through.
I remember after he was arrested, he got a call from MIT saying could he come back and get his backpack and bicycle, which they had seized. I was in Cambridge [Massachusetts] and he asked if I would accompany him. We waited there for a long period of time and finally a policeman came out and went into a room and retrieved his bicycle and said to us, ‘The rest of this is in the hands of the Secret Service.’ And we looked at each other and realized at that point that this was much more serious than we’d imagined, and we couldn’t make any sense of it. We were just devastated.
How did this affect him?
It was overwhelming. He was afraid, he was concerned. [The police] went to his apartment, went through all his personal effects. He was worried about his phone being tapped. He couldn’t go to MIT, he couldn’t go to Harvard. He couldn’t leave the country because they took his passport. The prosecutor was cruel and vindictive and bordered … on sadism. They strip-searched him and they left him in solitary confinement for hours and after he met his bond, they kept him in solitary confinement for three or four hours with absolutely no explanation — all with the goal of attempting to break him. This is not a system in which people are treated fairly or reasonably. They’re bullied and destroyed.
What is your message to the judicial system?
We need to do a better job. Rather than trying to prosecute someone who’s trying to make the world a better place, there are immense amounts of cybercrime going on where people are exploiting credit cards and doing things that are really bad. Even if you argue, which i think is completely false, that Aaron was guilty of something, there was no proportionality in the way that they acted.
[Apple founders] Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started a business by selling a box that allowed criminal fraud against the phone company. Bill Gates started in business at Harvard without paying for the computer time to write BASIC. Edwin Land who invented the Land camera broke into Columbia University to do experiments.. Mark Zuckerberg, in a similar way to Aaron, scraped the data off of Harvard’s computer system to start Facebook. These people are lionized for their accomplishments despite the fact that they did things that weren’t exactly legal.
In Aaron’s case, he did things that were not illegal and he was destroyed for it. And he was trying to make the world a better place. We need to celebrate people who do this . We need more Aaron Swartzes.