Bob Swartz: Losing Aaron

After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldn’t. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaron’s death.

aaron swartz boston

Aaron Swartz at the Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009. (Photo by Sage Ross on Flickr)

In January 2011, just a few blocks from where Bob sits, Aaron was arrested for downloading 4 million copyrighted articles from JSTOR, an online archive of academic journals (JSTOR stands for Journal Storage). JSTOR charges libraries as much as $50,000 in yearly subscription fees to access its archive, but at the time, MIT’s open-network policy meant any visitor to campus could take advantage of MIT’s subscription privileges by using a guest login. Even so, Aaron was charged with excessive and unauthorized access to the university’s network under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz, in the midst of a prosecutorial tear that would lead the Globe to name her 2011’s Bostonian of the Year, held up Aaron’s indictment as a warning to hackers everywhere: “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,” she said at the time. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

In fact, Aaron faced stiffer maximum penalties than if he had used a crowbar: 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. “I said to him, ‘I’ll use every sinew in my body and every synapse in my brain to get you out of this mess,’” Bob says.

Bob pleaded with MIT’s administrators and lawyers to intervene. Joi Ito, the Media Lab’s director, also petitioned the university to consider it a “family matter” and speak up regarding the charges of Aaron having “unauthorized access” on a campus where anyone, anywhere, could log into the JSTOR system—or any library database—with a simple Ethernet connection. But instead, MIT took a position of “neutrality.” It made no public statements for or against Aaron’s prosecution or about whether he should be imprisoned. This is the other reason why Bob’s visits to MIT are so painful: He can’t walk through campus without feeling that MIT betrayed his son.

“I always felt that MIT would act in a reasonable and compassionate way and that MIT wasn’t the issue,” Bob says. “I didn’t understand the depths of what MIT had done at that point.”


Bob has developed a routine during his Cambridge visits. He rooms at the Kendall Hotel. In the evenings, he’ll stroll to Emma’s for a pizza, or visit the Coop bookshop in Harvard Square. Some days he eats at Legal Sea Foods, where he often overhears drug developers debating the risk of funding new research. This bothers him. He believes people should be willing to take risks, to try and to fail, and that through failure comes change and invention.

“It all came from my father,” Bob says.

Bob’s father, William Swartz, was a successful Chicago businessman who parlayed his wealth into social activism. He founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation, and was active with Pugwash, the nuclear disarmament group that won the Nobel Prize when Aaron was eight. Through Pugwash, William befriended Jerome “Jerry” Wiesner, the 13th president of MIT and a cofounder of the Media Lab. When Bob was a teenager, his father would send him to pick up Wiesner at the airport when he came to town. “Jerry had an incredible heart about things and was just an extraordinary human being,” Bob says. In his memories, Wiesner embodied all that MIT stood for: compassion and creativity, challenging authority, and pure scientific inquiry.

Bob was never accepted to MIT—his dyslexia led to mediocre grades in high school—but he convinced the university to let him complete some undergrad and graduate work there as a special student in the math department. He arrived just as MIT was beginning to embrace, and celebrate, its hacker ethos. At MIT, a hack can mean benignly breaking into a computer system, but it can also mean breaking into the university’s underground network of tunnels, inflating MIT balloons during the Harvard-Yale game, or measuring bridges in Smoots.

“Hacking was investigating a subject for its own sake and not for academic advancement, exploring inaccessible places on campus, doing something clandestine or out of the ordinary, or performing pranks,” wrote Brian Leibowitz, editor of The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT. What started as a series of stunts evolved into elegant acts of cunning that have come to define the institution’s values. “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” Steven Levy writes in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.”

Bob’s eyes brighten when he’s asked about his own history of hacks. He says nothing, but just offers a sly grin; it’s the same smile he passed along to his son.

In time, Bob took over his father’s business and adapted it into a software company. He married and raised three boys of his own, who picked up his penchant for computing. “Before the World Wide Web existed, we were using the Internet,” Bob says. “We all understood very early on that the Internet was going to change everything.”

Aaron began to teach himself simple computer programs while still in elementary school. When he was 12, he accompanied Bob to MIT and sat in on Philip Greenspun’s Web-development class. “I was so excited by the class that I immediately went home and tried to make something,” Aaron wrote to a friend years later.

Even then, Aaron saw the Web as a platform for freely sharing. A year before Wikipedia launched, he built an open-source encyclopedia, which he submitted to Greenspun’s ArsDigita contest for teen programmers. As a finalist, he met the inventor of the Web, MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee. He followed that up by coauthoring some of the first codes for RSS feeds, at age 14; working on the frameworks for Creative Commons with famed Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, at 15; and helping to build the website Reddit, the sale of which made him a millionaire a week before his 20th birthday.

Like his father, Aaron was never an MIT student—he had done a brief stint at Stanford, but found it intellectually lacking. Instead, he worked with Lessig as a Safra fellow in Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and began to focus on the political potential of his coding skills. He cofounded Demand Progress, an activist group that railed against Internet censorship. He juggled projects on open access, rethinking copyright restrictions, and ending corporate corruption, and had coauthored a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which argued that public access to scholarly journals was a moral imperative. Aaron approached every stage in his life with an unbridled idealism. Whenever he grew frustrated or disappointed, Bob always encouraged him to learn from failure. Aaron’s goal, he says, was simply to “make the world better.”

Aaron lived in Central Square, moving fluidly between Harvard and MIT’s campus. At MIT, he visited friends and family, including his brothers, who interned at the Media Lab. Aaron’s girlfriend at the time, Quinn Norton, described his familiarity with MIT: Aaron “had a history of hacking,” she said in an interview with MIT after his death. Sometimes when she’d call him he’d tell her, “Can’t talk now, in the middle of breaking into a building at MIT with a bunch of students.”

“It was a fun place where he could do that,” she said. “And I think he did it at MIT because it was in the spirit of the things that he did, and other people he knew did, at MIT.”

Norton told MIT that Aaron was in the habit of gathering big data sets, and that she’d helped him scrape millions of books in the public domain from Google Books: “It was a game. He was a data pack rat…He really loved mashing them with scripts and going through and analyzing them and trying to pull stuff out of them.… I think that he somewhat reasonably thought that if MIT didn’t like it they’d just tell him to stop.”