Les Misérables and Aaron Swartz


Paw Prints: Writings of the maddog

Jan 13, 2013 GMT
Jon maddog Hall

Last night I was about to watch the movie “Les Misérables” in my favorite movie theater when (during intermission) I flipped open my cell phone to read the news of Aaron Swartz's death. I do not recommend watching that movie after reading news of a young (26 year old) hacker and Internet activist committing suicide.

***warning*** movie spoilers following:

For those of you who have not seen the movie, the stage musical, or read Victor Hugo's masterpiece, “Les Misérables” (set in pre-revolution France) is about a man named Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread to help feed his brother's son, was caught and sentenced to nineteen years of punishment as a slave. When freed on parole he was given “papers” that designated him a “dangerous man”, so it was impossible for him to get any job, or even to be treated as a human being. The justice of the time felt that he should continue to pay for his sins, and so, in particular, did one Inspector Javert.

Jean Valjean decides to “jump parole”, tear up his papers and forge a new life for himself. He moves to another city, starts a factory which employs lots of people, and rises to become mayor of the town. Javert happens to be assigned to that town, meets the mayor and suspects that this mayor is indeed the same prisoner that jumped parole so many years before.

Continuing to be hounded by Javert, Valjean is put into a position of sparing Javert's life. Even in that moment Javert sneers that he will find Valjean and bring him to justice for this crime, long-ago forgotten by everyone except for Javert and the books of “Justice”.

At the end of the movie Valjean risked his life to save the life of another man, and Javert finds them hiding in the sewers of Paris. Javert threatens to kill Valjean if he tries to escape, but Valjean just walks off with the injured man over his shoulders.

***end of movie spoilers***

For those of you not familiar with Aaron's life, I will not trivialize his deeds by trying to list them all here. You can find out about the many things he did by simply searching for his name on the Internet.

I will also say that I was not one of his intimate friends. I met him a couple of times, and found him very likable and brilliant, as did many people.

I did not, and do not, condone his “breaking into” PACER (Federal Court Documents) or JSTOR (academic journal articles).

Like Aaron, my personal belief is that information of this type should be public. Records generated by government and information provided through Federally funded research in particular should be accessible by all.

However, while PACER and JSTOR do hold what I consider to be public information these companies do provide a service which their customers are willing to pay: holding, indexing, and disseminating those documents.

In the early days of disseminating these documents there was a heavy cost in creating the index, storing the papers in some type of hard-copy format (protecting them from deterioration) and postal mailing the requested papers to the academic or legal person requesting them.

People can argue that over time these costs have dropped to a minimum with electronic submission, electronic storage, computerized indexing and electronic distribution, and that PACER and JSTOR should have changed their business plans to reduce the costs and extend the reach of their documents.

And people can argue that years of building these databases effectively blocked out competition from forming, yet building that electronic database of old papers also came with expenses of scanning and indexing, for which these companies deserved to be compensated.

The fact that PACER and JSTOR were serving up “public documents” did not justify Aaron's attempts to take the data and disseminate it without the permission of the companies.

On the other hand, what if Aaron had started an alternative site to PACER and JSTOR, that was free and open to have those documents distributed? What if he found a way for volunteers to scan in the documents, indexing them and building a database that was not only based on a “gratis” model (perhaps paid for by advertising or donations) and maybe better than PACER or JSTOR? This would have been difficult, but no more difficult than some of the other things Aaron did.

I point to the positive things that Aaron did inside the law. Aaron helped develop RSS and sites like Reddit, to co-found groups like Demand Progress, fought so hard to stop SOPA, and in doing so showed a lot of “little people” that standing up and being heard in Congress was actually something that could be done. These were all positive, forward looking things.

At issue in this incident is the pursuit of Aaron's crime. Aaron was charged under the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act designed in 1984 to protect computer systems from malicious break-ins and damages that could be done to computer systems and businesses as a felony. The maximum sentence could have been thirty-five years and a million dollars in fines, and Aaron would have had a felony criminal record attached to his 26 year-old name. A criminal record that would have limited Aaron in his career, even if the sentence was lenient.

A criminal record for a crime where no one was hurt, and the interested parties (other than the government) had decided not to press charges.

Interestingly, if the crime had happened in California instead of Massachusetts, the ruling of 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal might have lowered the issue to a civil lawsuit over “violation of contract” and “terms of service”, to be settled as a civil case between JSTOR, MIT and Aaron. JSTOR had already said they would not have pursued that route, since Aaron had surrendered all of the documents.

But the ruling of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeal did not have influence on the case in the Eastern United States, so Aaron's case continued to be a felony.

Of course we will never know exactly why Aaron committed suicide, but surely this case had a lot to do with his depression.

Sitting in that movie, I made parallels between Aaron's life and that of Jean Valjean, good men, with their hearts in the right place, who helped many people along the way, guilty for stealing “a loaf of bread”...the punishment going way beyond the crime, and pursued by “Javert” to their death, the Scales of Justice so unbalanced as to fall from the hands of the blindfolded lady.

I read various blog entries yesterday and today from people who knew Aaron very well.

I also read comments from some people who both never knew Aaron and (as far as I could see) never even read or thought about the issues that Aaron tried to address...comments that were not very kind to this tortured soul or his family. The ironic part is that a lot of Aaron's work was to protect the rights of those people to say what they want on the Internet. For these thoughtless people I have only contempt.

I chose not to write this blog article until today. I got up this morning, put on my favorite “Yoda” shirt, turned to my favorite music, and walked into town thinking about what I was going to write. Normally these things help me feel better, but I still do not feel any better, just very tired. Once again there has been a big rift in The Force.

To my government: I know you are not perfect, but in this case you screwed up really bad.

To my readers (and especially the younger ones):

  • Work within the law, not outside of it. Study what Aaron did to stop SOPA, start Demand Progress, and to advance the Internet.
  • If you feel depressed or suicidal, PLEASE talk to someone...get help. “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world” - “Desiderata” by Max Erhmann

To the parents and family of Aaron Swartz: I would have been exceedingly proud to have a son like Aaron.


  • Once again we pay a terrible price for neglecting our legal and mental health systems...

    ...with losing the future of a young man who might well have contributed greatly to the welfare of mankind had he lived. I have seen this happen many times (and once was once too many). Life is indeed precious, and, as a society, we waste it as if it were an infinite resource.

    The legal system in the USA continues to promote wholesale injustice, not only in terms of continued persecution of those who have transgressed and already paid for their transgressions, but also in crushing the lives of the already too greatly oppressed. It is no wonder that Les Miserables has such resonance.

    Aaron Swartz erred in addressing a perceived wrong in governmental information infrastructure using extralegal means. Perhaps had he known of existing effective legal methods that address this sort of inequity, this story would have had a much better ending. Also, had Mr. Swartz been better educated in the costs and benefits of civil disobedience, he might have made a better choice.

    Nonetheless, the system that he unwisely challenged rose up and crushed him, unnecessarily. And, then, the lack of a functioning support system apparently led to depression, despair and death. It is perhaps fruitless to dwell on what might have been done to avert this tragedy, but, as a physician, I am, perhaps unwisely, impelled to write a prescription for this ailment that has cost us far too many lives.

    We need a mental health system that addresses potentially dangerous situations proactively, without stigma, recognizing that mental anguish is form of pain as real as that from injury or disease. It must be run efficiently, as a public utility, not a business. (This staterment can justly be applied to the ENTIRE health care system, which, being run as a business, has failed--its society, its patients, and its providers.)

    We need a legal system that resolves conflicts between individuals and society efficiently, while separating those (sociopaths and other temporarily or currently incurably) unsane individuals who represent a danger, from the rest of us in a way that guarantees that they will not and cannot harm themselves, each other, or the rest of us.

    Despite fears to the contrary, we have no shortage of intelligent, innovative thinking and thinkers. WE CAN DESIGN AND BUILD THESE SYSTEMS, if only we have the will to do so.

    And, we need an educstional system that truly leaves nobody behind...without the knowledge needed to comfortably and successfully navigate human society. We have an unprecedented means of disseminating knowledge--the Internet. Let us use it to spread wisdom, as well as knowledge, so that we, as individuals, and as societies, can make better choices. And we need to make MUCH better choices--ask any Iranian or Syrian, or any American, if we hope to leave this world better than we found it.
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