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'Dangerously Naive' Aaron Swartz 'Destroyed Himself' 362

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 TwineLogic ( 1679802 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:28AM (#45044437)
    This Aaron Swartz affair has guaranteed that none of my kids will be attending MIT.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:29AM (#45044451)

    Will not be getting my renewal payment now.

    This opinion piece by Abelson is the equivalent of the childish "why are you hitting yourself?" game.

    Swartz commits what in any rational country is a minor infraction at best, local prosecutors decide it's not worth pursuing, so federal prosecutors with immunity from any liability decide to threaten him with a few decades in federal prison.

    His response was actually the most logical of all. Highlight what has become a dangerous threat to liberty by becoming a martyr.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:53AM (#45044637)

    I've been trying to make sense of this whole affair, and the above metaphor helps.

    Miners used canaries to monitor oxygen and harmful gas levels because canaries are more vulnerable than miners, and while a dead canary is a clear warning, a happy, chirping canary is a true comfort.

    If we give the canary some free will, mixed with smarts and some innocence, we get a bird who wanted to look at the miners, who was willing to accept some degree of risk associated with flying in a mine, but who instead unexpectedly encountered poison gas.

    No, the metaphor doesn't teach any lessons directly, but it does let all the participants have roles in the story, to think about them in isolation and in combinations.

    When you end up with a dead canary, it is important things to discover *all* the whys.

    But it may be more important to ponder the silence. To think about the fate of future canaries.

  • Here we go again (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @11:55AM (#45044653) Homepage

    The biggest tragedy about the actions leading to Aaron Swartz's death is that he's become a martyr for a ridiculous cause. Swartz once worked with a friend of mine, and from what I've been told, "naive" isn't too far outside his personality. I'm told he was an idealist, with little regard for consequences, and often a blind faith that things would work out with good triumphing over evil. Unfortunately, he was stuck living in the real world.

    While I agree on the principles of his actions, that science should be freely available, the actions he took to accomplish his goals were asinine. Wantonly breaking the rules of the institution you're trying to change will not actually bring about change; it just makes your opponents mad. When your opponents have vastly superior power, that's a pretty bad idea.

    What makes civil disobedience an effective form of protest is that the laws broken are trivial, but the trials must be public, so the whole affair is a PR campaign. Few remember that Rosa Parks' disobedience was not the first of its kind, but rather just the best candidate to go through a full (and widely-publicized) trial. By Parks becoming a celebrity over an injustice, the whole civil rights movement gained popularity.

    What I see now is a disturbing trend of irresponsible lawbreaking, under the banner of "protesting". Websites are hacked, contracts are ignored, and people with small problems feel entitled to disrupt all normal business until somebody takes care of them. Somewhere, people have forgotten that change comes slowly.

    Bradley Manning could have released his information in small quantities to human rights advocates. Edward Snowden could have sent information anonymously to the EFF. There are responsible channels for changing the world, but they are slow and often frustrating. Swartz had already founded Demand Progress [demandprogress.org] to fight various forms of online censorship; adding scientific lockdown to that campaign would not have taken much effort, and would be much more likely to succeed than going after JSTOR directly.

    Can we as a society please stop this madness? Let's stop glorifying leaks, stop vilifying our opponents, and stop encouraging concerned citizens to become martyred heroes. Instead, let's promote patience, compromise, and a steady societal change, rather than an overnight revolution.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:12PM (#45044761)

    When any organised religion exercises its power (throughout Human History) to destroy an individual, afterwards they ALWAYS make a report or announcement in exactly this form of language, decrying that the 'dangerous' individual destroyed himself (vanished few examples of females considered significant enough to be given this treatment) with 'naive' behaviour patterns. They always say that the 'Church' did not want to hurt the individual, but were left with no choice.

    So MIT acts and responds like a depraved religious entity. We should not be surprised. The governance of MIT has NOTHING to do with science or engineering- just power and corruption. The vast sums of money that flow from TAXING every student at entry for 'access' to papers that do not benefit the authors, ensures that managers at places like MIT will do anything it takes to protect the yearly kick-backs that enrich their bank accounts.

    This is the 'American Way'. Remember that in the USA it is EXPECTED that politicians who begin their careers as virtual paupers will end it worth hundreds of millions of dollars via the "politicians are exempt from corruption and insider trading laws" mechanism that your masters put into place when the USA gained 'independence'.

    At least you can be grateful that the monsters work hard to rub your face in the truth, so even if you are naive enough to attempt to be an apologist for MIT, that line of self-delusion cannot be sustained.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:17PM (#45044795)

    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

    You'd think MIT's psychology department would have pointed out the obvious flaw [wikipedia.org] in this logic, but I'm guessing management [npr.org] had something to do with that. But I'm sure it's an isolated case. You can't have an entire school convert to fascism [wikipedia.org] overnight without its students noticing something was going horribly wrong. I mean, if something is very, very obviously wrong and you see everybody else doing it, you wouldn't just go along with it [wikipedia.org].

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:19PM (#45044807)

    Rather than allow this to blow over, you decided to write a self serving piece to somehow make your report look unbiased.
    Someone is dead, your institution was involved in the series of events that lead to it no matter what you try to otherwise claim.

    You seem dangerously naive about what a knee jerk reaction from a university can cause to happen, completely moronic about attempting damage control, and have managed to bring the ire for your employer back to the forefront.
    Maybe you really should have listened to your Grandmother and taken her words to heart yourself.

    Sometimes it is better to remain silent and appear a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.


  • by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:39PM (#45044987)

    We do need some laws that would limit the threats a prosecutor can make or imply. We saw a similar problem with condominiums in Florida. The condo associations would file suits for huge sums against a condo owner. The condo owner would be forced to retain expensive legal talent to defend and then the association would drop the suit. The condo owners were made aware that they could be bankrupted by that tactic as numerous suits just might be filed against them. The legal solution was to force the completion of each suit filed by a condo association. The same could be done for criminal law. A defendant could only be tried for the highest charge stated or implied. Since the prosecution knows they only intend to prove a lesser charge it forces the prosecution to only indict for the actual crime they feel they can prove. It takes bluffing out of the game.

  • Re:Here we go again (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sarten-X ( 1102295 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @12:40PM (#45045005) Homepage

    Maybe if they had, they would have written essays for years prior to the Declaration of Independence, slowly building public support and highlighting the injustice of the British rule. Following the official channels, they should have sent representatives to England to attempt to have their interests heard, even knowing that their requests would be denied. After the first stirrings of independence, it would probably have taken at least ten years before support was widespread enough to actually go ahead with a revolution.

    Oh, right... that's exactly what happened.

  • by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @01:51PM (#45045573)

    However, that doesn't change the fact that Swartz was dangerously naive, and I don't think anyone with a clue can honestly dispute that.

    Of course, we're then left to question whether naitivity is a problem with the individual, or society. We're saying he was ignorant, not stupid. That he was young and lacked crucial knowledge about the world that may have enabled him to overcome this obstacle, instead of smashing him into the rocks where a lighthouse should have been present, but wasn't. I don't think someone being naive is the fault of the person; It implies you simply don't know something, and we all have been there. To imply he should have known better, or should have known better at his age, or should have known better because... well... how can you say that? With the enormity of variance in personal experience, there is undoubtedly a few things you don't know that "everyone" else does.

    Which leave us with the prosecutor, who wasn't naive and knew full well what he was doing. When you threaten someone with decades in jail, massive fines, and basically ending life as they know it, there's always the possibility they will lose their composure. The biggest badasses on the street are still the ones that cry like little girls in the back of squad cars as it dawns on them how screwed they are. If you can break a man who's got "Fuck the police" hot sauced across his forehead, what do you think some wet-behind-the-ears kid in MIT is going to do when you threaten the same?

    The prosecutor knew better. There is no 'if' here, it's his job. He did know. He had to have known. So that means he did it intentionally and with full view of the potential consequences... he did it with a blatant disregard for the well-being of others. He doesn't just deserve to be fired, he deserves to be in jail for being the proximate cause of another's death; He deserves a criminal record.

    Of course, fortunately for him, our legal system doesn't work that way. No matter how much shit you lay out on someone, how much abuse you give them, how many times you beat them to a pulp, to the point that they're reduced to ash... as long as they're the one that pulls the trigger and not you; You are not responsible for their death.

    Swartz is dead, and nothing can change that. But what we can change is the people employed by the state prosecution -- we can remove this man's name and ensure he can never harm anyone like this again, and then start talking about reforming the system and putting audits in place so that this kind of prosecutorial misconduct is dealt with swiftly and evenly. Because while Swartz took the ultimate get out of jail card, there's plenty of innocent people in jail because they opted for the more reasonable approach of pleading guilty to crimes they were innocent of, because the odds were not in their favor and the charge sheet was long and would have kept them in jail for life if they lost a bet they already had bad odds on.

    If we're going to assign blame, if we're going to point fingers... then I'd say it's 95% the prosecutor, 5% the kid. Ignorance may be no excuse from the law, but it's not an excuse for the law to abuse people either.

  • by Kohath ( 38547 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @03:00PM (#45046135)

    Why did the government treat Aaron Swartz like Al Capone? Should we have a government that does that?

  • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Saturday October 05, 2013 @07:39PM (#45047725) Journal

    The lulz here is that Prof. Abelson tells an anecdote about how he was led to his study and career by a chance discussion with one of the Students for a Democratic Society, which he had during a sit-in at the President's office to protest the Vietnam war. He went to the AI Lab the next day, made some connections, and that was that.

    But, yeah, I'm sure his career would have unfolded the same way if he'd instead been arrested and threatened with 20 years of prison. Trespassing is trespassing. Copyright violation is merely a civil offense, and should be orthogonal.

Did you hear that two rabbits escaped from the zoo and so far they have only recaptured 116 of them?