Aaron Swartz Versus the Bankers

(Illustration: DonkeyHotey)

New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide while under federal investigation for bulk downloading academic articles, leaves little to disagree with. But it missed a comparison that has troubled me: between Swartz and the bankers who tanked the world economy.

I have found myself unable to write about this topic until now. First, Swartz lived for many years in my apartment building in Cambridge, Mass., and many residents remember him as quiet and kind. Second, I share his belief in the free flow of information. Using the NonCommercial ShareAlike license from Creative Commons, MIT Press published and freely licensed my Street-Fighting Mathematics“One of the early architects” of Creative Commons was Aaron Swartz.

Swartz tried to free knowledge and expand the public domain. In contrast, the bankers took from the public domain.

Not one banker has gone to jail, except Bernie Madoff — whose crime, as Matt Taibbi points out, was defrauding the wealthy. Bankers, even with a demonstrated record of laundering billions in drug money, are too big to jail. In contrast, Swartz was threatened with a long federal prison sentence.

Swartz was an enemy of rent-seeking. The bankers are its epitome.

Whereas the bankers are drawing ever bigger bonuses, Swartz’s case ended in his suicide.

As a final contrast, Swartz failed in his last project: the academic knowledge, much of it paid for with public funds, still sits behind toll booths. (As a previous New Yorker article pointed out, he probably should have worked with specialist hackers, instead of trusting his own skills, diverse as they were.) The bankers, on the other hand, succeeded.

Barraged by propaganda about intellectual “property,” from Disney and friends seeking to lock knowledge behind government-enforced toll booths, we have fallen far from our free-thinking colonial forebears and Thomas Jefferson‘s famous 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz. Your light still shines.

Alan T

Thank you, Sanjoy. Here is more on Aaron.

Jacob Lyles, http://jacobexmachina.blogspot.com/2013/01/aaron-swartz-freedom-fighters-death.html: "Aaron's [alleged] crime is theft in precisely the same way that a member of the underground railroad was an accomplice in theft."

Larry Lessig, http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully

Cory Doctorow, http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html

Public interest attorney osewalrus, http://osewalrus.livejournal.com/1079370.html

As you know, Aaron was a genius as well as an idealist. He co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification at the age of 14. I benefit from his work every day.

In view of the fact that the original intent of U.S. copyright law was “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," it can be argued that bulk downloading of academic articles (which Aaron may or may not have done) and making them available to the public for free (which Aaron did not do, but may or may not have intended) promotes the progress of science better than locking up academic articles behind a paywall. No, I don't hate copyright laws. I think that in this particular case, our copyright laws do not well serve their original purpose.

Aaron's work to make our scientific heritage available to the public is being carried on by diverse groups, including Demand Progress (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demand_Progress), which he founded; The Archive Team, which has released The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator Tool (http://idealab.talkingpointsmemo.com/2013/01/aaron-swartz-article-liberator-tool-released-by-archive-team.php?ref=fpnewsfeed); Creative Commons, (http://www.creativecommons.org/), whose licenses Aaron helped design; and public interest law firm Public Knowledge (http://www.publicknowledge.org/about).

Aaron, sleep softly. You live in mankind.

"They call on the names of a hundred high-valiant ones,
A hundred white eagles have risen the sons of your sons,
The zeal in their wings is a zeal that your dreaming began
The valor that wore out your soul in the service of man."


Mike B

Aaron's act of self sacrifice was probably one of the most effective actions he could take to help promote his vision. Instead of bemoaning this as some sort of tragedy I see this as a brilliant move based on the cards he was dealt. Aaron stuck it to the man in a way that might actually prompt real change.

Mike B

The problem with people like Aaron Swartz is that they also act as Gadflies/Lightning Rods and usually come across as total dicks which makes them unsympathetic to both law enforcement and, more importantly, juries. Various computer security "researchers" have run into this problem where performing activities that on the face of things should not be illegal wind up getting them convicted of various broadly defined "crimes". On one level it is an outrageous abuse of power, but if you look at it the people who wind up in trouble, more often than not, have highly self-serving motivations behind what they do.

Gadflies like Aaron Swartz and security researchers make names for themselves by high profile "stunts" and, more importantly, taking credit for high profile stunts. It's their bread and butter, its how they make a living. Aaron Swartz was clearly put On Notice that his various hijinks were wearing thin yet he persisted. Is it unfair? Certainly, but it is a fundamental part of human society to punish those that make a pest of themselves and by taking the actions he did Aaron made it east for himself to swatted.

The solution is simple and effective. Do not make things about you. If you become the face of some movement you CANNOT continue to engage in high risk behavior. You can be a grey hat "hacker"...you can be high profile...but you CANNOT do both at the same time unless you want to live in the Ecuadorian embassy for the rest of your life. It is not at all hard to shield oneself from this sort of backlash as long as one is willing to give up the thrill of the hack or even the credit of the hack. As soon as it becomes about you you lose the shield of being able to say your acts are selfless and for the public good.



I suspect that people like Swartz are dicks for the same reason why independent-minded politicians (I'm thinking of Dennis Kucinich, Ron Paul and Jesse Ventura in particular) are a little bit crazy: perfectly-adjusted people tend to try to reform the system from the inside (and sometimes get swallowed up by it). You have to be a little bit crazy, or a little bit of an arsehole, to go outside the system.

I'm not sure how you'd go about gathering evidence for this, though.


So freakonomics.com is allowing preaching on its blog now?


Blogs are supposed to include opinion. This opinion is relevant to the topic of behavioral economics. Why shouldn't Sanjoy post it?


What he posted wasn't an informed opinion and is full of misinformation. There are lots of places on the internet for dogma--where you can go to hear things that confirm your social or political philosophy without regard to facts. Economics is a science...a search for truth, which is conspicuously absent here. That's where Sanjoy went wrong. He posted mindless social/political rhetoric on a blog intended for economic thought.

Bill Ogorodny

Thank you so much for bringing up this topic. It is an outrage why none of these white collar criminals ended up in jail.
There are two justice systems in my opinion. One for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of us


There are actually quite a few bankers in jail. The Rolling Stone article is over 2 years old and the Department of Justice has put away a number of people since then.


Not a very impressive or economically thought-out article. To refer to the many different people and institutions who contributed to the financial crisis as if they were all "bankers" conspiring in a smoky room and all got off scott free sounds more like a hick du ring the great depression who can't figure out who is to blame for losing the farm than an economist who understands the events of the financial crisis. Madoff wasn't a banker and his actions were not very similar to those of bankers. The crisis was not a conspiracy and didn't particularly enrich bankers and wasn't particularly the result of any illegal actions.

I get it that you think Aaron Swartz was a good guy and empathize with him, but the comparison/contrast with the financial crisis is anything but apt.

Scott W

There are so many important aspects of Arron Swartz's life and prosecution that all attention to it is welcome. While this compare/contrast to banker prosecutions is a bit of a muddled overreach, I hope we keep talking about Aaron, his point of view and how we feel about the influence of power and money in our justice system..


Suppose we turn this around. Take someone who believes that money ought to be free, and tries to free it by hacking ATM machines: is that person in any sense a hero?

On the other hand, what exactly is wrong about laundering drug money? It's the profit from a business, in which willing* buyers purchase products from willing sellers - a free market per Adam Smith - but the sellers are prevented from enjoying their profits by restrictive government. Why aren't the bankers who help "free" those profits also heros?

*However stupid I may think them for wanting that product. But then, I have similar feelings about the majority of products advertised on TV.


There is a crucial difference between money and information. If I get money from you (legally or otherwise), you no longer have that money. If I get information from you, you still have that information. You have lost precisely nothing.

That's why copyright infringement, trademark infringement and patent infringement are not legally the same thing as "theft". There is only one kind of "intellectual property" which can reasonably be thought of as "theft", and that's trade secret theft. In that case, you have lost something: you've lost the secret.

Let's take the example that you write a book, and I copy it without permission. This is copyright infringement. It is not "theft" or "stealing" of "IP", because there is no "property" of which you have been deprived.

I haven't stolen anything from you or anyone else; you still have your copies, and everyone else has theirs. I haven't even stolen a "right"; you still have the right to copy it, exploit it commercially, publicly perform it and so on, and moreover these are all rights you would still have even if there were no such thing as copyright.

Copyright is not a piece of property you posess which I can deprive you of. It is a restriction imposed on me (and everyone else) which I can break.

And it's not an absolute restriction, either. I'm allowed to copy parts of the book, or even the whole book, under certain circumstances, and you can't do a damn thing about it.

In a deep sense, "intellectual property" doesn't exist. What we customarily call "intellectual property" is not a thing, not "property", and arguably an unhelpful and confusing term which causes more problems than it solves.

But I digress. In the case of Aaron Swartz, even that wasn't the issue. We're talking about material which is free to redistribute, but happens to be behind a paywall. It was the act of circumventing the paywall which was the problem, not the redistribution of material that you can legally redistribute.



This is wrong. If I write a book and you copy it instead of buying it, you are depriving me of the potential income from that sale, thus depriving yourself (and all my other millions of readers) of the opportunity of reading my vastly entertaining & enlightening future works, which I won't be writing because I now have to work a dull & boring day job to make a living.

As for the paywall issue, I've found that paywalled research papers (in the sciences, anyway) can almost always be found, unpaywalled, on the authors' or research lab' web sites. (Though I do wish Google had an option to filter out paywall hits and other useless results.) So what exactly was the point supposed to be?


No (or perhaps few) bankers are in prison for the financial crisis because they didn't break any laws! There's no law that says it's illegal to be greedy or foolish.

Being a director of a company is a very important job, and the vast majority of them are experienced, educated, and hard-working people who really want to improve the companies they work for. If you start punishing people for failing at work, because after all some businesses just don't work, then no one with any talent is going to sit on a board for a company that needs strong leadership to save it-- look at the damage done by Smith v Van Gorkom, and how hard it was to get good leadership after that case. That leadership vacuum contributed to the holes plugged by PE firms in turning those firms around (and making a lot of money in the process). We don't want a system in which someone second-guesses (after-the-fact) every decision managers make.

If you can think of a law to try to fix past problems when they reoccur, all the power to you. But you don't jail people for not breaking any law just because you don't like those people. Arbitrary punishment is the essence of totalitarianism.


Caleb B

Exactly. It is populist to believe that "evil" bankers who got rich loaning people money they couldn't afford to pay back should go to jail....but it was a bubble. The vast majority of people still thought housing prices would go higher...hell, Capt. Ben said subprime was contained himself. In June of 2007, Fed Fund futures suggested a 75% chance rates would rise to slow down inflation.

So Richard Fuld (Lehman CEO) didn't go to jail because he did not break any laws. He just got caught on the wrong side of a bet.


Aaron Swartz performed an act of civil disobedience. We often forget the consequence of such an act is jail time -- this brings attention to the cause.