My heartfelt condolences go out to the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, who took his own life Friday at age 26.
We'll never know whether the restless Internet wizard and advocate for Internet openness would have beaten the federal rap against him. But the closer you look at the case, the more he looks like a guy who was ahead of his time and couldn't wait for Congress to catch up.
He was charged under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with downloading millions of academic journal articles without authorization. But compared to the banks and national security agencies that the law was intended to protect, Swartz's offense sounds like small potatoes.
As David Segal, executive director of the Demand Progress organization that Swartz founded, put it, his indictment was "like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library." Granted, we're talking about a lot of "books." Swartz was charged with breaking into a computer wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, tapping into the school's computer network and downloading millions of journal articles from JSTOR (short for "journal storage"), a nonprofit service that charges schools to access its archives of scholarly articles.
Swartz, an Internet prodigy at 13, also was a leader in a decade-old "open access" movement that aims, among other goals, to make scholarly articles free to the public. He also is credited with co-founding the popular Reddit website and helping to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a proposed copyright protection law that many -- including me -- thought was too restrictive.
Swartz's lawyer and other allies insist he did nothing wrong. MIT ran an open computer network and JSTOR said in a statement that it settled civil claims with Swartz a month before his prosecution began in 2011. Both JSTOR and MIT expressed condolences on their websites and MIT's president L. Rafael Reif said the university has begun an analysis of their involvement with the federal case against Swartz.
JSTOR also has announced that it would open its archives of more than 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.
Yet, efforts by Swartz's lawyers failed to have his charges, which could have brought as much as 30 years in prison, dropped. He hanged himself in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment, police said.
I can't say that I approve of Swartz's hacking methods. Like other restless young geniuses on the cutting edge of the Internet political culture, he apparently could not wait for the usual legislative processes to open up more public access to scholarly documents. Yet history may well remember his tragic death for bringing needed attention to a debate that is only beginning about concepts like "freedom" and "liberty" on the web.
"Freedom" implies no boundaries. "Liberty" suggests that there are rules. The Internet freedom movement wants to get rid of rules and they have a point -- up to a point. An Internet law written back in the mid-1980s, when a megabyte still sounded like a lot of memory, begs for review and updating.
Still, rules are written for a reason. I say this as a newspaper journalist who has watched my industry, as well as the CD industry, bookstores and many others, thoroughly shaken up by the mixed blessings of the Internet age.
Alas, in this debate I find myself on the opposite side of my son, who is a few years younger than Swartz, and his friends. They're so accustomed to the bounty of free stuff on the web that they sound downright offended that any person would want to charge good money for his or her creations.
For them, Swartz and his mentor, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and leading proponent of "free culture," are heroes. Their movement aims to loosen up the allegedly stodgy "permission culture" that includes such quaint old-fashioned concepts as copyright law and other intellectual property rights.
I favor the push for more Internet freedom on the whole, until it bumps up against the right of creative people to protect their creations. That's an emerging debate of our time -- and one more important innovation for which Swartz will be remembered.