The Suicide of a Federal Criminal Defendant

Silicon Valley and the DOJ Collide in Tragedy

Below is the story of PACER, Aaron Swartz, and a brilliant life cut far too short.


For years I’ve been working with, and silently cursing, PACER. This system, which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, is an online system built and maintained by the federal government to give its citizens electronic access to court records.

As it usually goes, the government collects a fee for this services. Recently, although the system was already extremely profitable, they upped the cost per page by 25%1. Adding insult to pocket-book-injury is that this charge wasn’t levied because the old system was updated. We now just pay more for the same antiquated system that’s always been there.

Aaron Swartz

Activist. Programmer. Child Prodigy. Federal Criminal Defendant.

Aaron made a bigger impact on the internet by age 14 than many talented programmers will ever accomplish.2

As a programmer, he was a child prodigy. As an activist, he was fearless. If you’re reading this blog, on this website, chances are you’re probably very familiar with how relentless and intimidating the federal government can be to tangle with. Aaron saw the PACER system (see above) and decided to do something about it.

Instead of paying for the same pages over and over again, he took a piece of code called RECAP and ran with it. In the words of somebody more knowledgeable than me on Aaron, Cory Doctorow wrote:

At one point, he single-handedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any case law they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.

In very basic terms, he took these documents which are in the public domain3 and prevented the federal government from getting paid on them. Hence, he pissed off people that don’t normally get messed with. He faced legal trouble, but came out of it clean.

After this, Aaron was very busy with public interest activism. At one point he decided that some scholarly and important documents4 hosted by JSTOR needed to be liberated from their server. So he planted a laptop in an MIT closet, grabbed a few million articles, and then retrieved the laptop.

Enter the Government

Aaron’s actions were probably nothing new to the folks around MIT and Harvard. However, his actions beforehand didn’t help his reputation with the federal government, and the US Attorney’s office didn’t hold back when bringing charges. As a federal criminal defendant, Aaron was looking at serious jail time, or so he was threatened.

From Tim Cushing of TechDirt:

Swartz, the executive director of Demand Progress, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a catch-all designation for “computer activity the US government doesn’t like.”

Swartz had accessed MIT’s computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he “stole” several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it’s pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of “theft.

Much more has been written on this case. Read about what others had to say on prosecutor bullying in this case , when the law is worse that then crime, and how his actions turned affected one member of the tech community.

A Sad Ending

Despite 18 months of negotiation and legal posturing, it seemed as those Aaron would spend the rest of his life labeled as a felon. This is a label a lot of readers of this blog share and know the consequences of. To avoid this, a brilliant mind, prodigy, genius, and public activist killed himself.

I never met Aaron, but his work resonated through the word of tech, all the way to this lowly federal criminal consultant writing for this blog. His work making public records actually public and free reached even this far, and that says something profound.

  1. from $0.08 USD per page to $0.10 USD []
  2. Namely, he wrote the specs for RSS feeds that we all use in one form or another these days. []
  3. []
  4. research papers, journal articles, thesis papers, etc. []