Swartz death should spark hard-hitting discussions
Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 22:01
Aaron Swartz, Internet activist and technology wizard, was found dead at his apartment on Jan. 11, and the discussion of what contributed to his suicide should not be swept under the rug.
At age 26, Swartz had an impressive list of accomplishments. At age 13, he won the ArsDigita Prize in 2000, which is awarded to young people who created useful non-commercial websites, according to reports.
The 14-year-old Swartz then moved on to help create RSS, an online tool that helps users subscribe to online information. He was on the founding team for Creative Commons, attended Stanford University before taking a break to co-found Reddit (a popular technology news site), started several other websites, and was the founder and director of nonprofit advocacy group Demand Progress, according to multiple reports.
Swartz was a young man with many praiseworthy achievements who only wanted the public to have access to information in the new digital age. Unfortunately, Swartz seemed to have overstepped the boundaries to such information when he downloaded 4.8 million articles from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s academic database JSTOR, a large archive of academic journals that is accessible to OSU students. He was indicted in July 2011 on federal charges for illegal access to JSTOR’s subscription-only service and downloading nearly the entire library. Although JSTOR declined to purse the case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office continued to pursue the case, and media reports stated Swartz was facing penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement four days after Swartz’ death that contrary to media reports, prosecutors had no intention of seeking the maximum penalty and instead wanted to pursue a plea bargain which consisted of six months in a “low-security setting.”
During this time, Swartz was plagued with depression, a mental health disorder he had been battling for several years. This, plus the full weight of the charges he was facing, may have led to his suicide.
Swartz’s case is a sad story that opens up the conversation on the government’s abuse of power and the horrifying downside of depression. Was the government too harsh on Swartz, even though the only purpose he had in downloading those articles was so that they could be made readily available to the entire public, rather than the small percentage who are subscribed to JSTOR? Did depression play a factor in his death and should the world pay attention and take this mental health disorder more seriously than it is?
They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste, yet we have lost yet another great mind for seemingly unfair reasons. Here at Ohio State, a discussion should be started on these two questions because they go beyond Swartz’ case. In the latest discussion about gun control, the power of the government is being evaluated and should continue to be evaluated. And with the many lives lost directly or indirectly lost because of mental health disorders such as depression, the seriousness given to these problems should be revisited and re-appraised.
Swartz, a young man whose activism and intelligence eventually led to his death, is a modern tragic hero.