The end of an extraordinary life: Aaron Swartz

Both Swartz and prosecutor Stephen Heymann were doing what they thought was right, and someone died

I had already submitted my last column when I heard about Aaron Swartz's death. Some might say that it's too late to comment on this story since the crowd has moved on, but it's never too late to write about someone you knew.

I did not know Aaron well: I spent a few days at a retreat he also attended about five years ago, but I knew his work. He was everything that all the coverage you have already read mentions -- extraordinarily smart, nice and dedicated to making the right things happen.

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As chance would have it, I also know one of the prosecutors in the case, Stephen Heymann, about as well -- having talked with him about the same amount of time. In some ways, Heymann and Swartz are not all that different -- both are (or were) smart and dedicated to their view of "right."

Much vitriol has been unleashed on the prosecutors' office in this case. At this point I do not think that any of the people not directly involved know enough of what happened in detail but, as many have said, including U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the actual charges Aaron was facing were widely out of proportion with what he had done. Even the widely reported six-month sentence being offered as part of a plea deal is far too high a price to pay for attempting to make a pile of scholarly articles freely available.

Maybe it was a refusal on the part of MIT to accept a lesser penalty, as has been reported, that kept Ortiz and Heymann from agreeing to a penalty more in line with what Aaron actually did. We should know at some point because MIT, to its credit, appointed Professor Hal Abelson, perhaps the one MIT person that could be trusted to fully tell MIT and the rest of us the truth, to investigate the school's actions.

I am sad, very sad. Aaron was a good guy, a very good guy. He made the Internet, and thus the world, a better place by what he did -- starting when he was barely a teen. He accomplished more in his 26 years than almost any other fighter for the right that I can think of has done in twice as many years. Aaron was four years younger than the Internet (if you measure from the deployment of TCP/IP) -- he spent the whole of his life in the world of the Internet and he swam so smoothly and powerfully in that world.

I am also angry -- a sad angry -- that Aaron was subject to the law rather than to justice. For that I, at this point with incomplete information, blame MIT as well as the prosecutors' office. We will know more about MIT's role when Abelson makes his report and I hope that we will find out more about paths not taken by the prosecutor's office in the future.

At this point I do not know what to feel about Heymann's role. From what I saw in him during our talks I fully expect he felt he was doing the right thing. But I do wish that his right thing had not contributed to the death of a person who had so much more to give to the world.

Disclaimer: Harvard has not expressed any opinion on Aaron's activities or his death, so the above lament is mine.

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