A Moment of Silence for Aaron Swartz

I am joining three academic research web sites, SIFT and Polyphen (websites for predicting disease mutations) and CRAVAT (a website for predicting cancer mutations), in a moment of silence to mark Aaron Swartz’ passing. On January 25, we will bring down our sites for the day to honor his contributions and mark the tragedy of his passing.

Aaron’s treatment by MIT is not unfamiliar to me. Back when I was a graduate student there, I extracted security keys from the original Microsoft Xbox video game console. I still remember the crushing disappointment of receiving a letter from MIT legal repudiating any association with my work, effectively leaving me on my own to face Microsoft. However, in my case, the faculty of my then-lab, the AI lab, were outraged by this treatment. They openly defied MIT legal by publishing my work as an official AI Lab Memo, thereby granting me greater negotiating leverage with Microsoft. Microsoft, mindful of the potential backlash from the court of public opinion over suing an openly legitimized academic researcher, came to a civil understanding with me over the issue.

It saddens me that America’s so-called government for the people, by the people, and of the people has less compassion and enlightenment toward their fellow man than a corporation. Having been a party myself to subsequent legal bullying by other entities, I am all too familiar with how ugly and gut-wrenching a high-stakes lawsuit can be. Fortunately, the stakes in my cases were not as high, nor my adversaries as formidable as Aaron’s, otherwise I too might have succumbed to hopelessness and fear. A few years ago, I started rebuilding my life overseas, and I find a quantum of solace in the thought that my residence abroad makes it a little more difficult to be served.

While the US legal system strives for justice, the rules of the system create an asymmetric war that favors those with resources. By and far one of the most effective methods to force a conclusion, right or wrong, against a small player is to simply bleed them of resources and the will to fight through pre-trial antics. Your entire life feels like it is under an electron microscope, every tiny blemish magnified into a pitched battle of motions, counter-motions, discovery, subpoenas and affidavits, with each action heaping tens of thousands of dollars onto your legal bill. Your friends, co-workers, employers, and family are drawn into this circus of humiliation as witnesses. Worse yet, you are counseled not to speak your candid thoughts to anyone, lest they be summoned as a witness against you. Isolated and afraid, it eventually makes more sense to roll over and settle than to take the risk of losing on a technicality versus a better-funded adversary, regardless of the justice.

The US government is by and far the most well-funded and fearsome enemy to spar with, and copyright law has some unusually large, if not cruel, penalties associated with it. I don’t know Aaron personally, but I feel the magnitude of the bullying he was subjected to is reflected by his decision to end his life. I echo Larry Lessig’s notion that the legal system in the US needs a sense of shame. At least to an outsider like me, it seems like some prosecutors in the US government are obsessed with making a big name for themselves. Winning cases gets them the recognition and credibility needed for promotions and assignments to ever higher profile cases. It’s not about justice, it’s about victory.

This system of incentives, I feel, contributes to the shameless bullying of individuals and small entities with enough guts to stand up and to do something a little daring. Individuals are robbed of the will and strength to fight for what they feel is right, as the mere act of prosecution can be as much a punishment as the verdict. As a result, I fear the era of civil disobedience may be coming to a close.

What has America become?

33 Responses to “A Moment of Silence for Aaron Swartz”

  1. nyc hacker says:

    Stop being so cynical. Your case is no match to people dying in Africa. You are just one piece of shitty hacker. Try hack my computer, hacker. Wait. Hacker != Cracker. But you aren’t even a hacker. Niggggga.

    • Anon says:

      People dying in Africa can be directly linked back to the closed source software world. Nyc “hacker”, lol. Your opinion isn’t an educated one.

      back to >>/b/, newfag

    • Lazlo Toth says:

      Congratulations, that is one of the tackiest and most cynical debate tactics available and my black hat is off to you. “I’m sorry, your argument is invalid. Someone somewhere else in the world is unhappy.”

      Mysteriously, nobody ever applies this dismissive principle to their own pet projects. If you are so concerned about starving children in Africa, donate to the Red Cross, accept that people can in fact care about multiple causes at once, and kindly shut the living fuck up.

    • hockeypuck says:

      I shouldn’t respond since this is a post to generate hate. Enough said.

  2. H says:

    You belittle so many who suffer from depression by ignoring it as the root cause. Aaron may have been abused by the US government – regardless, the court system clearly needs drastic change – but you are fighting this battle by masking the main issue and claiming Aaron as martyr to you cause. That is disgusting.

    • WTF says:

      Belittle them by ignoring it? How is it not implied?

      He’s pointing out the fact that even someone with a charismatic attitude towards life can still be thrown into the depth of depression when you get stuck in a shitty situation like this.

      Aaron was needlessly tried and probably tens of thousands of dollars in debt at the point he decided to take his own life, if that doesn’t paint a picture of depression, then what will?

      Read what he’s actually saying, and stop being a dick. It was a well-written, thoughtful article on the travesty that we call our modern day legal system.

      He’s not using Aaron as a martyr, in fact he’s more akin to a catalyst for change, as people are now talking about how fucked up copyright law actually is.

      • P says:

        Are you *seriously* implying that his depression was caused solely by what he did? Fuck you.

        • kelly says:

          Are you seriously saying that the legal problems didn’t play a large part in driving him to suicide?

    • H,

      Aaron’s friends and family have been quite clear in blaming MIT and the US government as what killed Aaron:
      http://www.rememberaaronsw.com/statements/family.html http://open.scripts.mit.edu/blog/petition/

      Bunnie has done exactly what those closest to Aaron have called for (thank you, Bunnie). And yes, a lot of them will be reading this.

      Depression is a terrible thing. I’ve seen another brilliant mind lost to it recently, but I do not think it is the core issue here. Aaron’s viciously unfair prosecution was far beyond the typical stresses people endure in life, and thus we treat it as the root cause. I appreciate that you’d like to claim Aaron for the cause of mental illness, but it is not the issue those closest to Aaron want to see discussed.

  3. xedd says:

    I thought your analysis was very thoughtful, and thought provoking. The US legal system does need to be more fair and more focused on real justice, and less of a career highway for egocentric, fame-seeking douche bags.

    Fight the Good Fight!

  4. Josh A says:

    Wow, some of the comments are very rude. Thanks for the thoughtful article, despite them. America’s public institutions have become a “tragedy of the commons” in their own right with nothing to stop people from using their offices for personal advantage over public good.

  5. tz says:


    Just one of the other innumerable examples.

    Aaron Swartz is merely the latest and he won’t be the last. They will keep coming, driving people to suicide or prison to rack up points in what is for them some kind of game. Because next time it will happen to someone you don’t mind – a drug dealer, a small time firearms business, a tobacco store owner. You don’t care about tyranny and abuse of power until it happens to one of your own, and others who are not of your community don’t care when it happens to you.

    That is what has happened to America. Too many want the Federal Government to micromanage behavior – and – break the rule of law when it impedes their ability to do something we want. But we become they. Each wants jackboots to enforce their pet laws, so we get an army of jackboots. Enough to step on everyone’s neck because someone doesn’t like what you are doing just as you don’t like what someone else is doing.

  6. David says:

    Great article, thank you for writing it. Ignore the PR persona shills that are posting derogatory and immature comments, they are doing that everywhere right now. It has nothing to do with how the real (not paid for) public sees this case.

  7. Eric says:

    I loved the way Cambridge stood up to UK Cards Association back in 2010, via the letter Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, crafted:

    Cambridge university refuses to censor student’s thesis on chip-and-PIN vulnerabilities

  8. Russ says:

    Never occurred to me that not only did you have to fear civil lawsuits from Microsoft, but that the feds could have criminally prosecuted you for similar crimes, even after Microsoft dropped the case.

  9. Tom says:

    Thank you for speaking up on this, bunnie.

    To the haters, I say: If you haven’t been bullied by the justice system you just don’t get why people are unhappy with it.

    I was railroaded into pleading guilty to a crime based on evidence collected by the police unconstitutionally, simply because it cost me many thousands of dollars less than it would have cost me to challenge the illegal antics of the police.

    While I was facing that dilemna, I went into my local hall of justice to see what our court system is like firsthand. I was disgusted by what I saw: people who had been held in jail for weeks getting thrown back into jail without any consideration of their case other than a few procedural formalities. It became very clear to me that once the “wheels of justice” are turning, you don’t want to be anywhere nearby because the weak get crushed.

    I strongly suggest to anyone reading this that they simply go and spend a day at your local criminal courthouse, dropping in on whatever court cases are going on at the time. It will open your mind much more than anything you can read on the internet.

    I am a proud American and I still believe that we have the best justice system in the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near perfect.

    • John says:

      “I still believe that we have the best justice system in the world”

      I’m just curious, what do you base that believe on?

      • Andrew says:

        “best justice system” due to rule of law.
        Not perfect, but best so far.

        I am of the mind that Mr. Swartz played with fire and got in over his head. If his condition was so delicate, it seems to me he’s the one most responsible for his own preservation. Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

        In any case, it is nevertheless a tragedy when our world could use more people with the concern for others that Aaron had.

    • Carl says:

      I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for over 30 years now and there is no doubt that the system is flawed. What a tragic story…..

  10. […] [toread] A Moment of Silence for Aaron Swartz « bunnie’s blog – […]

  11. Dan says:

    The US legal system is the last among Western democratic countries to practice death penalty on regular basis. It cannot be the best one by far, as there have been so many mistakes precisely on this most disputed fatal sentence that the US legal system appears actually as deeply corrupt.

  12. j. cale says:

    Sad 2 hear of Aaron’s torture and death

    stolen quote i thot worthy……“Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law, it invites every man to come a law unto himself. It invites anarchy. (United States v. Olmstead, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). Justice Louis Brandeis http://www.scribd.com/tired_of_corruption

  13. j. cale says:

    Thanks bunnie<3 glad u are free

  14. Olivier says:

    I hear you !
    Your blog is DEEPLY needed work here.
    We all get this, right now, put in simple words.
    We don’t have to deal badly engineered solutions, we provide them!

    Brillant piece of history right now. I want to test drive two of those new arm laptop of yours. Wow, I thought about your exact same design all over xmas vacations. And know I come back home with BIG gift under the tree there.

    You made my year, simply put this fucking rocks my socks. As I need a new laptop VERY soon and can’t live with commercial shit. Life’s too short on earth to deal with borked designs from the starts that you can’t bug fix.

    C code STILL have a REAL value in 2013. Efficient computing, thoughtful designs with good insight.

    That’s all what Chumby project was about, and now I’m ready for the future.
    Good thing I got some vacations to try this out!


  15. Aris says:

    “It’s not about justice, it’s about victory.”

    So true.

  16. game says:

    Heh, true stroy man.

  17. Kerry Naeve says:

    your site is very interesting and has got lots of wonderful information.

  18. rappelz says:

    /poin for you

    its nou about justice…
    very true

  19. J. White says:

    No government on this planet is perfect. In fact most modern governments are greedy, self-serving machines. Humans count as long as they are able and willing to pay taxes otherwise various fear tactics are used to submit an individual into what a government wants. This is all done under the pretext that one is a citizen of one’s beloved country therefore one should pay.

    A lot of brainwashing tactics have been used to make Americans believe that it is a government for the people & by the people. Most naive folks believe so as they themselves fund this brainwashing machine by paying obediently their taxes. Few are willing to think outside the box and this is extremely convenient for the government. So, what is the solution here? – In my opinion, work towards gaining personal power both spiritually and financially, this is despite fear and pressure form outside. Rest in peace Aaron Swartz….

  20. Titanfall says:

    I don’t know if it’s already been mentioned in the comments, but I think corporations may have similar rights as humans do under US law, and this could be part of the problem.

  21. Sam Sung says:

    We live in a very tenuous version of democracy. How any country that has only two real parties, both of which are in the pockets of the rich and powerful corps, can be truly democratic is hard to imagine.