The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

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According to legal documents eventually filed by the government, it was these activities that marked a critical juncture in Swartz's development, the moment his wandering activism veered into focused, reckless criminality. In actuality, the downloads were at the time something of an afterthought: an extension of Swartz's fascination with large data sets, his perpetual need to juggle multiple experiments at once. Settled in Cambridge, he had been made a fellow at Harvard, where Lessig, his early mentor who had hired him to work on Creative Commons, was now a professor. Swartz was working on a historical analysis of Congress, a project that allowed him to at last explore his interest in writing, as well as his growing interest in electoral politics. In 2009, he had helped launch an activist group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and in the summer of 2010 had dedicated his energies toward a young politician named David Segal, a Democrat who was running for Congress in Rhode Island. After Segal lost the primary, he and Swartz started Demand Progress, a nonprofit promoting progressive causes, including the fight to stop SOPA. "I always looked up to him as someone who had done all these amazing things," Segal recalls. "When I told him, he just turned and said, 'Sometimes, I worry I haven't achieved anything worthwhile.'"

Swartz's friends and family only learned of his downloads from JSTOR's database after January 6th, 2011, when Swartz, while riding his bike through Cambridge, was surrounded by police and agents from the Secret Service. A few months later, in July, he was indicted on multiple counts, including computer and wire fraud, charges that carried sentences of up to 35 years in federal prison. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, and Stephen Heymann, the government's prosecutor, made their understanding of Swartz's intentions clear from the outset. "Stealing is stealing," noted Ortiz after the indictment, "whether you use a computer command or a crowbar."

Over the next year and a half, the government added multiple counts to the original charges, and as negotiations for a plea ended in stalemates, the situation became increasingly grim and surreal. In an online post about Franz Kafka's The Trial, Swartz wrote, "I found it was precisely accurate – every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn't fiction, but documentary." Yet in person rarely did he exhibit any indication of the dark cloud the case had become. He remained engaged in both his life and his activism, giving talks around the country, traveling to Wisconsin to support that winter's labor protests and, later that summer, falling in love.

He had first met Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, a fellow programmer and activist who lived in Washington, D.C., when he visited the city the week of the midterm elections. When the two saw each other again in June 2011, when Stinebrickner-Kauffman was in Boston, she took the initiative, asking Swartz out on a date. Though the chemistry between them was undeniable, Swartz let her know that he might not be in the best place for dating: "There's a bad thing in my life right now," he said cryptically, warning her that she might not hear from him for weeks. A few days later, however, he called her, and took an impromptu trip to D.C. to see her in person. "I already had plans to go strawberry-picking with friends," says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "In retrospect, it was really funny that he was remotely willing to go, given his basic fear of fruit."

As the relationship grew more serious, Swartz continued to reference "the bad thing" in his life, and in July, a few days before he was indicted, he asked if she would like to hear it from him or learn about it in the papers. "I'd been trying to figure out what it was for weeks," she recalls. "And when he finally told me, I was like, 'That's it? Downloading academic journals?'"

Among the most frustrating components of the ordeal was the fact that JSTOR, ostensibly the most overtly wronged party, had declined to press charges against Swartz after he returned the downloaded documents. This at first seemed to be a harbinger that a resolution would be quick. MIT, after all, had a fabled history of being sympathetic to hacking culture, but for reasons that remain murky, the school allowed the case to go forward. Hal Abelson, a professor who Swartz first met when he won the ArsDigita prize at 13, is currently leading an internal investigation into the school's actions throughout the process. "It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that had ended in tragedy," the university's president, L. Rafael Reif, said after Swartz's death.

"I knew Aaron was getting depressed – I could tell he just wasn't there," says Norton, his ex-girlfriend. "It was something he was always dealing with, usually triggered by the issues with his stomach. And like those, it was something he was a genius at hiding." Though the thought of prison contributed to his malaise, it was the idea of being labeled a felon Swartz most acutely feared, and the reason he rejected the government's plea offers. During a trip to D.C., he spent a day touring the city with Norton and her daughter. "There was a moment when we were standing outside the White House," Norton recalls, "when Aaron turned to me and said, 'You know, they don't allow felons to work there.'"

Swartz for his whole life had compartmentalized any anguish he experienced, mental or physical, venting frustrations only in the confines of his blog. His experience of the case was no different. The most obvious effect of the psychological grind it had become was his decision to leave Cambridge. With the entirety of his possessions filling two bags, he settled into a studio apartment in a new building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But in New York he was neither morose nor withdrawn, and in May 2012, Stinebrickner-Kauffman moved in with him. That winter, Swartz surprised Stinebrickner-Kauffman by mentioning that he'd like to talk about marriage. "But I want a Liz Lemon wedding," he said.

On December 12th, 2012, Swartz met with his friend Ben Wikler in Brooklyn, and over pancakes, Swartz spoke with him for the first time about the status of the case, brainstorming a way to galvanize public sentiment. A crusader his whole life, Swartz was now a cause, a role that made him uncomfortable. "Everyone wanted to help him," says Wikler. "When you have 100 really active, smart people who are saying 'Hey, tell me how I can help,' it actually puts a lot of pressure on you." Intellectually independent almost from birth, and financially free since he was a teenager, he now found himself dependent on those around him. "His financial independence had basically vaporized," says his father. In the days before his death, Swartz was preparing to reach out to friends and colleagues in order to raise $1 million he felt was required for the fight, and he spoke of how much he dreaded making those calls.

On January 10th, the day after the activist conference in upstate New York, Swartz was in good spirits. "Surprise!" he shouted early that evening, when Stinebrickner-Kauffman returned home, expecting him to be out. Swartz was animated, eager to head into Manhattan, where a friend was celebrating a birthday party. Swartz was talkative, engaged, not the least bit withdrawn. The bar served macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese, his favorite foods, and Swartz remarked about how the sandwich was among the best he'd ever had.

However, the next morning, Friday, January 11th, Swartz's mood took a drastic turn. He would not get out of bed, despite Stinebrickner-Kauffman's best efforts. "I was shaking and pouring water on him, but he just wouldn't move," she says. Eventually, he got dressed, though he decided not to go into the downtown Manhattan office he worked out of. Believing the worst was over, Stinebrickner-Kauffman went to work, messaging friends that she was worried about Swartz, and asking that they stay in contact with him throughout the day. That evening, the two had plans to have dinner with Wikler, but when she arrived in Crown Heights to pick up Swartz, she found his body, hanging from a belt.

In the weeks after his death, the conversations Swartz hoped to instigate in life have entered the center of the culture. Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has launched an investigation into the Justice Department's prosecution of Swartz, and Zoe Lofgren, a Democratic congresswoman from California, drafted a bill she calls "Aaron's Law" to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in ways that would limit the scope of future prosecutions against similar crimes. A graffiti artist painted a mural of Swartz on the side of a post-industrial stretch of Brooklyn's waterfront.

But as his friends fight to ensure his death was not in vain, in private it is the smaller moments they mourn deepest. Ben Wikler finds himself thinking back to an afternoon in March 2011 when the two of them ventured out to Winthrop Beach, a scrappy piece of coastline in Boston directly under the flight paths of planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport. Swartz had already been arrested, though he made so little of it that it was easy to forget, and as the two wandered the deserted shore on that chilly afternoon, Wikler was reminded of an old Far Side cartoon, which he pulled up on his phone. Looking down from the cockpit of a plane, a pilot sees a remote island, where a man stands with his arms raised. HELF, he has carved into the sand in gigantic letters, prompting the pilot to say, "Wait! Wait! Cancel that, I guess it says 'helf.'" Using driftwood, Wikler and Swartz carved the word into the sand, in letters large enough for the planes coming into the airport to see, Swartz laughing at the idea of one of the pilots thinking, for a moment, that someone was calling out for help, and then realizing he was only joking.


This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.


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