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'Dangerously Naive' Aaron Swartz 'Destroyed Himself' 362

Posted by timothy
from the serious-consequences dept.
theodp writes "In July, MIT drew criticism after issuing a report clearing itself in the suicide of Aaron Swartz. So, one wonders what Swartz supporters will make of The Lessons of Aaron Swartz, an MIT Technology Review op-edish piece penned by MIT EE/CS prof Hal Abelson, who chaired the review panel. Calling Swartz 'dangerously naïve about the reality of exercising that power [of technology], to the extent that he destroyed himself' (others say prosecutorial overreach destroyed him), Abelson questions 'whether the people who mentored Swartz and helped him achieve such brilliance and power had a responsibility to cultivate not only his technical excellence and his passion as an advocate but also, as my grandmother would have called it, seykhel-a wonderful Yiddish word that means a combination of intelligence and common sense.'"
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'Dangerously Naive' Aaron Swartz 'Destroyed Himself'

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  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:20AM (#45044355) Journal

    Well, Hal, if this is what it takes to let you sleep at night despite your and your school's part in Swartz's persecution, have at it. But I doubt too many people are buying it; at this late date pretty much everyone's mind is made up anyway.

    It seems that "using power responsibly" usually means subordinating oneself to the whims of politicans and bureaucrats; to defy their will using one's technical prowess is immature, irresponsible, etc. The upshot is that if you're not a politician, you should sit down, shut up, and obey. I don't accept that.

  • Common sense? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by guruevi (827432) <evi AT smokingcube DOT be> on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:20AM (#45044357) Homepage

    Being prosecuted for being a whistleblower, being followed, being harassed... to expect and deal with that is common sense?

  • Huh? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:21AM (#45044365)
    Since we all know that all the progress depends on unreasonable people, what's the point of trying to make everyone grow up reasonable?
  • Common sense? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by deanklear (2529024) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:22AM (#45044375)

    Is there a yiddish word for asshole?

    The most damage Aaron could have possibly done is damage the profits of a private corporation. For that, he was hounded until he decided to take his own life.

    Common sense tells me that his death is a tragedy, period. The only people who should be feeling shame are the sycophants who are defending the right of the powerful to abuse the powerless. May you reap what you sow.

  • by elrous0 (869638) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:39AM (#45044523)

    I wonder if Abelson's grandmother ever taught him about human decency, dignity, or shame?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:54AM (#45044647)

    Swartz commits what in any rational country is a minor infraction at best

    Dude. He hid himself in a closet in MIT and illegally downloaded and posted millions of journal articles. He did it on this scale deliberately to call attention to his act. And this was after being unsuccessfully prosecuted for much the same stunt in Chicago a few years before, and then taunting the FBI from his private website.

    Then there's the fact that Swartz consulted Lawrence Lessig in advance of the MIT download, and Lessig advised him not to do it.

    He did it anyway - and was prosecuted for it! Oh, whoa, poor, poor Aaron being bullied by the big bad Federal Government and MIT! And now he might actually have to go to jail for downloading a few journal articles! Why was he born to live in such an awful world?

  • by Lloyd_Bryant (73136) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @10:56AM (#45044663)

    Just out of curiosity, exactly what "offense" did he commit that you think is worth even a year's probabation with a suspended sentence.

    He used MIT's computer system to accomplish what it was designed to do. All he did was do a lot more of it than the designers were expecting.

    There mght have been a civil copyright issue here, but none of the copyright holders appeared interested in pursuing such a case.

    And there definitely was a "using more than your fair share of shared resources" issue, which is not a crime (unless you're a federal prosecutor with an axe to grind).

    To me, "common sense" dictates that MIT should have pulled him aside, and informed him that his massive downloads were not acceptable, and if they didn't stop, he would be officially banned from using MIT's network in the future. Once banned from the network, if he continued his activities he would *then* actually be guilty of a crime worthy of prosecution.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:00AM (#45044681)

    Generation Y (that is, the reddit crowd) sure does have a rather weird sense of "responsibility", in general.

    Why should anyone aside from Mr. Swartz feel responsible for something harmful that Mr. Swartz did to himself, by himself, completely voluntarily? They shouldn't, of course.

    So many members of Generation Y completely pervert the concept of responsibility in all respects. Not only is Mr. Swartz incorrectly absolved of his responsibility in this ordeal, but others with no responsibility at all are somehow considered to be "responsible".

    Here we have nearly an entire generation completely misunderstanding a very basic concept like responsibility. It's quite unusual, quite absurd, and to some extent quite scary.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:05AM (#45044711)

    If mental torture didn't work, nobody would try it.

    If bullying didn't work, nobody would try it.

    But you're a shit, so what the hell am I doing? You're not listening.

  • True lesson (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Gravis Zero (934156) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:10AM (#45044741)

    I think the real lesson to be learned here is how dangerous the legal system really is. I do say legal system because it's not a justice system as there was no justice served here.

    It's abhorrent how people can simply claim they had nothing to do with it when their actions or lack there of are the most critical aspect in this case.
    May the gravity of their [in]actions weigh upon those participating or complicit in this farce. This is not a penalty or punishment, this is your wage.

  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:15AM (#45044779) Journal

    The most logical course to being threatened with a little jail time is to kill yourself?

    The government proposed to throw him in a cage for months or years, along with a bunch of people who were a lot tougher and meaner than he was. The government would work diligently to prevent escapes, but protecting inmates from each other would not be a priority. Assuming he survived this experience, once he got out, he would be ineligible (as a result of his felony conviction) for any form of work he was qualified for, and thus would be faced with, at best, a life of scraping by with low-wage unskilled labor.

    I can see why suicide looked like a rational alternative.

  • by similar_name (1164087) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:29AM (#45044885)
    It's not a Generation Y thing, it's a philosophical question. You're basically arguing that a defendant is wholly responsible for the consequences of his action regardless of the weight of those consequences and the arbitrary nature in which they seem to be applied. Some argue that society has some responsibility to enforce laws evenly, clearly and with consequences weighted appropriately to the harm against society done.
  • by TemperedAlchemist (2045966) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:30AM (#45044895)

    Dangerously naive? Perhaps.

    I think I can agree with the author on that point.

    Destroyed himself?

    Well thanks for pointing out the obvious, suicide is by definition self destructive.

    ---

    But let's cut through the crap now shall we? MIT, you've disgraced yourself. I don't think it's your fault you don't have a backbone; you hire people for their brains, not for their strength of will or conviction. And so too are your students chosen for intellect and character. Which is something I appreciate and hold in high regard. But it seems you lack strength in your character.

    Neither does this excuse you. Aaron's blood is on your hands, and you must carry that burden.

    It's your responsibility to protect your students. He was a naive idealist, no argument here, but yet you let him die. Yes; you LET him die. Fearful for your own status and the legal action of an out of control prosecutor, you stepped out of the way when the gun was pointed at him. And even now you're trying to dodge all the bullets, trying to cling to neutrality.

    And I say this as someone aspiring to go to MIT some day.

  • Re:Common sense? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:35AM (#45044961)

    Actually, he decided that access to taxpayer-funded research shouldn't be locked behind a third-party paywall.

  • by Kohath (38547) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:04PM (#45045175)

    A lot of us want to live in a society where the "naive" aren't driven to suicide by the government.

    Blaming the victim isn't super helpful, even when you maybe, sort-of have a point

  • by gweihir (88907) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:10PM (#45045215)

    You should check whether you are human. You seem to miss essential characteristics.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:14PM (#45045253)

    Being "naive" should not absolve somebody from being held legally responsible for his or her very objectionable actions, however.

    Likewise, being "naive" should not absolve somebody from the responsibility he or she holds when voluntarily engaging in a self-destructive behavior (like suicide) alone.

    A "naive" person should not be considered a "victim" just because he or she repeatedly engaged in activities without, willingly or unwillingly, understanding the potential consequences of such actions.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:29PM (#45045387)

    Generation Y (that is, the reddit crowd) sure does have a rather weird sense of "responsibility", in general.

    Responding as a member of Generation X to your rather obvious troll, I will say that what I see in Generation Y a hope for the future that we failed at. Are you really so far gone that you have lost all sense of justice, of morality, of just basic decency and fair play? Do you really believe the vitriolic slime that was Thatcherite doctrine that every man is an island, alone?

    The best thing anyone of my age can do is give all the help they can to the generations beneath us - we failed to wrest power away from the hippes that turned into yuppies, but if we pass on our knowledge and experience, but not our jaded cynicism then there might yet still be hope. Personally I think the average Generation Y's morality is a lot less warped than Abelson's will ever be.

  • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:38PM (#45045471)

    My brief experiences on the wrong side of the law, way back when I was a youngster, lead me to firmly believe that Prosecutors are way more interested in scoring wins, making examples of people and furthering their careers than in truth and justice. To that end, they always strive to apply as many charges as they can think of and pursue the most harsh punishments available to help ensure they have the maximum leverage and/or win at least something regardless of the facts and circumstances and/or consequences (sound familiar House Republicans?). It's very easy for the accused, especially if young and naive, to be overwhelmed by this process, even with a good, reassuring defense attorney. If I faced the behavior of the Prosecutors in this case, I might also see the ultimate path Aaron chose as the only way out...

    From Wikipedia [wikipedia.org]:

    On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by MIT police on state breaking-and-entering charges, after systematically downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. Federal prosecutors later charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines, 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release.

    Meaning, he bypassed a website pay/firewall and downloaded some (okay, many) articles. Is that something warranting 35 years in prison? I think not. We could easily enumerate many, many worse crimes - against actual people - that get less severe punishments. It's seems there's a disconnect in this country between "protecting the innocent" - especially people vs. corporations - and the actual crime and damages. I won't say "punishing the guilty" because Prosecutors don't actually care what someone is guilty of - as long as they win.

  • by SmallFurryCreature (593017) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:11PM (#45045755) Journal

    There is a scene in Shindler's list were jewish prison laborers are constructing the baracks of a concentration camp. One of them, a young woman, goes to some nazi overseers and tells them the constructions are being done wrong, she is apparently an engineer.

    She is shot for daring to talk to them.

    Who do YOU blame for the outcome of that scene? The woman or the nazi? You might think that if she had kept quiet she would have been fine... but that just shows you have a lousy grasp of history. But if someone had pulled her back, she would not have died that day. And that is the message being send by this article. Don't make waves because the powers that be might kill you.

    It is after all common sense to let sleeping dogs lie. I used to think of that saying as "let that otherwise friendly dog sleep" not "let the guard dog keeping you in the prison compound sleep". Possibly because that last one hardly rolls of the tongue.

    Was Swartz naive in assuming there would be no consequence to disrupting the status quo? To easily panicked when he threw the snow ball and he got caught in the avalanche? Maybe but is the lesson to learn from this to never question the status quo? That would be terrible, for us all to turn into sheep because we might get slaughtered if we don't behave like sleep.

    Yes Swartz was naive. Yes those around him should have been more supportive of him but the fault for his death lies solely and alone with those who prosecuted him.

  • by Blue Stone (582566) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:12PM (#45045769) Homepage Journal

    >Just out of curiosity, exactly what "offense" did he commit [...] ?

    Looking sexy while being raped. This article is nothing but a tech version of 'blame-the-victim'.

  • by Shavano (2541114) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:20PM (#45045851)

    If Aaron Schwartz is the victim in his own death, he's also the perpetrator.

  • by geekoid (135745) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `dnaltropnidad'> on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:52PM (#45046083) Homepage Journal

    IT was MIT who insisted on tough ]punishments and wouldn't allow a slap on the wrist.
    If Abelson was anyway involved it that, then he is at fault regardless of his history'.

    NO, he wasn't naive, his punishment was overblown.

    I'f I am going 5 mph over the speed limit, and I get a ticket I am not naive, that's just the risk I took.

    If I get arrested, taken to jail, refuse bail and threatened. IT didn't happen becasue I was naive, it happened because people were abusing power to make a point.

  • What about the prosecutor that threatened Mr. Swartz with 30 years in jail for actions that most civilized people think should have been dealt with by the University administration, or maybe by the civil courts. Was it responsible to threaten a person with 30 years in jail for disregarding an EULA?

    Mr. Swartz's case highlighted the odious and unjust practice of threatening people with completely out of proportion punishments to induce them to plea bargain. And as far as I can tell this is done to gain political points in the next stage of the prosecutors's career, not to improve justice.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @02:27PM (#45046315)

    Society can be responsible for Pushing a person in to a corner where they have limited options and that is what happened here. Possibly spend the rest of your life in prison or take the easy way out. Should he have fought it sure. Was he in a mental state that would allow him to function well enough to mount a defense and fight the charges while being badgered by people in positions of authority, well not really hence the suicide. Depression is a strange mistress and when being forced into serving what would amount to a life sentence in prison for a trivial infraction what would you chose? The Prosecution is at fault, they were the bully and should be treated as such.

  • by epyT-R (613989) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @02:31PM (#45046337)

    Unfortunately, this will get harder to do as subsequent generations are raised with thinner and thinner skin. The current legal landscape in the USA, completely byzantine and out of control, needs to be fixed, for sure, but the other part of the solution requires us to quit raising generations of pantywaists. Politics that encourage victimhood groupthink mentalities are a large part of the blame here.

  • by gnasher719 (869701) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @02:56PM (#45046471)

    That generation's utter miscomprehension of the concept of responsibility causes some of them to mistakenly think that holding somebody (like Swartz) responsible for objectionable behavior is "mental torture" or "bullying".

    We could try to hold the prosecutor responsible for her objectionable behaviour, but she doesn't give a shit. Decent people would feel that being responsible for a person killing themselves is like mental torture; she obviously doesn't.

    I always find it amazing how Americans apply the concept of responsibility so selectively.

  • by russotto (537200) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @04:22PM (#45047007) Journal

    Abelson is an old Lisp hacker.

    He was hacking at a time when hacking (in any sense of the word) was not demonized anything like the way it is today; further, as people gain position within the establishment, they tend to adopt the establishment point of view. By claiming Swartz "destroyed himself", and by focusing on what MIT can do to prevent students from following in his footsteps (rather than what it can do to prevent prosecutors from crushing those who do), he shows he has completely adopted the establishment point of view.

    He has not shied away from standing up for freedom of information, even if there are heavy legal consequences involved.

    So how much time has he spent in jail? How much jail time has he been threatened with? That kind of credential comes with a price, and I don't see that he's paid it.

  • by isdnip (49656) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @04:58PM (#45047171)

    The prosecutor aims for a high degree of punishment because they hope for a plea bargain, with every intention of keeping the maximum sentence recommendation intact in the event that the case actually goes to trial. It is a way to undercut the constitutional guarantee of trial by jury by raising the stakes so high that a jury trial becomes an untenable gamble.

    Thus the Ortiz-Heymann tactics in this case should be seen as what they were, an untenable subversion of basic constitutional rights, by persecutors with a goal of putting notches in their belt, hoping to gain political points with an ignorant public afraid of any and all "crime".

  • by TapeCutter (624760) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @08:38PM (#45048303) Journal
    Exaggerating the severity of the alleged crime to further her career is not her job, she is not a defence attorney she is a public prosecutor, she should be sacked.
  • by Ol Olsoc (1175323) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @09:27PM (#45048495)

    We could try to hold the prosecutor responsible for her objectionable behaviour, but she doesn't give a shit. Decent people would feel that being responsible for a person killing themselves is like mental torture; she obviously doesn't.

    But that really isn't the case. Something else had to be going on in Mr Swartz's life. Most people od not kill themselves when being prosecuted. And Swartz could have been much more effective seeing out his prosecution rather than offing himself.

  • by Kohath (38547) on Sunday October 06, 2013 @10:36AM (#45050987)

    When hurting people is someone's job, the people who get hurt can never be called victims?

If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts. -- Albert Einstein

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