Barack Obama and the Death of Computer Genius Aaron Swartz

Photo by
Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

After Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American Harvard professor, was erroneously arrested for breaking and entering, Barack Obama spoke up.

The President at first overdid his criticism of the Cambridge police, but in the end acted laudably as a peacemaker, inviting both Prof. Gates and the arresting policeman to the White House for a “Beer Summit.”

Now the White House should help make peace in a separate Cambridge case and hold another Beer Summit, in fact a whole series--between copyright lobbyists and America’s librarians, educators and consumer activists. Dead in the copyright wars is Aaron H. Swartz, the 26-year-old computer genius and information-access activist who hanged himself in Brooklyn. He was facing a possible prison term of up to 35 years and a possible $1-million fine for alleged computer-related offenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Beer Summit (Photo by: Pete Souza at Beer Summit

Beyond the Copyright Beer Summits, here’s how President Obama should respond to the Swartz tragedy--far more outrageous than the specific indignities that Prof. Gates so unfortunately suffered at the personal level:

1.      Offer a heartfelt apology to Swartz’s parents, who accurately described the suicide as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Whether or not Swartz was guilty under current law, his intentions were pure. The Obama Justice Department should never have treated him as if he were Aaron Soprano. Alas, Swartz is not the first bullied hacker to die a suicide, and the name of Stephen Heymann, an assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Massachusetts, has come up in both this case and an earlier tragedy.

2.      Work toward the mitigation of extreme copyright laws, including the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which, in some cases, gave us copyright terms of up to 120 years. Talk about the encouragement of battles between copyright holders and other citizens! Without massive campaign donations over the decades from the copyright industry to members of both major parties, would terms be as long? As a writer, I’m gung-ho on copyright. But let’s not overdo.

3.      Formally propose two well-stocked national digital library systems, one serving public library-related needs and the other fulfilling different academic needs even though the two systems would be tightly intertwined and both universally accessible. The more information is legally free, the fewer confrontations and Swartz-style tragedies we’ll see. What’s more, I’ve told in detail how copyright holders could actually earn more through a greater reliance on the library business model. Fodder for the 2013 State of the Union address?

Ironically, Congressional staffers have illegally downloaded copyrighted books and movies--while congress members were drafting the mercifully killed “Stop Online Piracy Act.” These violations go on. Will the Obama Justice Department investigate and throw the book at Hill staffers, and maybe even their bosses, with the same zeal it showed toward the prosecution of Swartz? Hardly. But the White House and politicians on both sides of the aisle can work toward library-friendly business models that will smarten up the country, promote social mobility and at least somewhat reduce the temptation to violate the law. William F. Buckley Jr. was a big supporter of the national digital library concept, writing two “On the Right” columns for it. Can’t President Obama get more serious about this education-and-jobs issue in disguise?

Meanwhile the President should read comments from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who, besides offering his sympathies to the Swartz family, wants the university to reexamine its legal actions. As both an Obama supporter in 2008 and 2012 and a member of the U.S. technology community, I hope that the President can show as much open-mindedness.

An earlier and longer version of this column is on the site.

7 Comments For This Article


Jesus, this Prosecutor's office has now been implicated in a SECOND hacker suicide! What are they DOING up there in Massachusetts?

Ellen H.

I wonder if you would have written this if the person in the center of the wrongdoing was named Brendan O'Brien. It gets old. He obviously had emotional deficiencies that did him in. No 26 year old is going to hang himself if he is innocent. I mean, really.

irwin corey

The president should have stayed out of the Gates issue and should stay out of this.....


@Anonymous, @Ellen H and @Irwin Corey:

A: Exactly, as noted in the article. The 2008 victim was a young man named Jonathan James, even younger than Swartz. What's more, separately, Stephen Heymann wanted Harvard to snoop on on intranet users without getting court orders. The university, to its credit, resisted this invasion of privacy. Jay Gatsby would have called Heymann "a bad egg."

EH: Any suicide is tragic. The Swartz death was particularly so, given Swartz's good intentions and his accomplishments and future potential. As for no one hanging himself unless guilty, how could you write that? Have you been in a prison lately? Do you know all the indignities that prisoners can suffer there at the hands of other inmates? Please reconsider. I agree Swartz had emotional issues. But this does not justify the feds' eagerness to send him to prison. A follow-up from the prosecutor's office notes that he was offered a plea bargain, but then again, if he and some rather high-priced legal talent felt he was innocent, at least of anything major, then it's understandable why he declined. Remember, he was not planning to sell the information.

IC: From Wikipedia--for those unfamiliar with the origins of your probable pseudonym: "'Professor' Irwin Corey (born July 29, 1914) is an American comic, film actor and activist, often billed as 'The World's Foremost Authority.'" Would that news of The Swartz death be just a joke. As for Obama's intervention, both cases were/are worthy of it. Come on, IC. A young man is dead.

David Rothman

In regard to my just-posted comments, I very much wanted my name in there---here it is below (I got pulled away from the computer and didn't pick up the omission until just now).

Let me add that decades ago I worked for a daily newspaper in Ohio and wrote up the aftermath of the Kent State tragedy. I can remember certain people rejoicing over the students' deaths. I'd like to think we have made a little progress since then; and President Obama can help by apologizing for what happened to Swartz (far more serious than what so unfortunately befell Henry Louis Gates).

A President should offer moral leadership among other kinds. The Aaron Swarz case is an excellent opportunity for Mr. Obama to do this and also advance the important access-related cause for which Aaron Swartz fought. As is evident from some items reachable through the Web address below, others share similar sentiments.

David Rothman

irwin corey

After the President gets himself out of the swamp of politics and posturing, then he can walk up the hill to the moral high ground.

David Rothman

If you feel this way--I don't--then why not regard the Swartz situation as an opportunity for the President to take the first step up the hill? DR