Two Days Before MIT and Cambridge Cops Arrested Aaron Swartz, Secret Service Took Over the Investigation

The public story of Aaron Swartz’ now-tragic two year fight with the Federal government usually starts with his July 19, 2011 arrest.

But that’s not when he was first arrested for accessing a closet at MIT in which he had a netbook downloading huge quantities of scholarly journals. He was first arrested on January 6, 2011 by MIT and Cambrige, MA cops.

According to a suppression motion in his case, however two days before Aaron was arrested, the Secret Service took over the investigation.

On the morning of January 4, 2011, at approximately 8:00 am, MIT personnel located the netbook being used for the downloads and decided to leave it in place and institute a packet capture of the network traffic to and from the netbook.4 Timeline at 6. This was accomplished using the laptop of Dave Newman, MIT Senior Network Engineer, which was connected to the netbook and intercepted the communications coming to and from it. Id. Later that day, beginning at 11:00 am, the Secret Service assumed control of the investigation. [my emphasis]

In fact, in one of the most recent developments in discovery in Aaron’s case, the government belatedly turned over an email showing Secret Service agent Michael Pickett offering to take possession of the hardware seized from Aaron “anytime after it has been processed for prints or whenever you [Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann] feel it is appropriate.” Another newly disclosed document shows the Pickett accompanied the local cops as they moved the hardware they had seized from Aaron around.

According to the Secret Service, they get involved in investigations with:

  • Significant economic or community impact
  • Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
  • Use of schemes involving new technology

Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.

A lot of people are justifiably furious with US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and AUSA Heymann’s conduct on this case.

But the involvement of the Secret Service just as it evolved from a local breaking and entry case into the excessive charges ultimately charged makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.

MIT’s President Rafael Reif has expressed sadness about Aaron’s death and promised an investigation into the university’s treatment of Aaron. I want to know whether MIT–which is dependent on federal grants for much of its funding–brought in the Secret Service.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

83 replies
  1. phred says:

    Why the secret service? Short of threats to the President, I’m fuzzy on their jurisdiction. What sort of crime would there need to be to get their involvement?

  2. orionATL says:


    precisely my question, phred.

    did he have an association with manning? this is precisely the sort of intimidating massive retaliation by long, long sentences that are being used against manning.

    if so, did the white house assume control of harrassing?

    secret service is in charge of counterfeiting. have they extended their charge to anyone “freeing” databases?

    on the surface, the obama whitehouse appears simply out of control when it comes to harrassing/persecuting individuals who challenge gov’t decisions – whistleblowers, muslim-american dissidents, critics of presidential power.

    at this point in our four-year experience of president obamaw, it is time to acknowledge that obama is simply an authoritarian by nature -nothing else explains his behavior so succintly.

  3. orionATL says:

    schwartz did indeed have some connection with manning.

    that the secret service is involved in persecuting schwartz suggests what should have been clear along,

    that the u.s. gov’t persecution of manning has always been directed by the white house – incuding his months of torture at quantico.

  4. P J Evans says:

    That was one of the first things that came to my mind.
    Also the complete lack of prosecution of, for example, banks breaking laws, or the (not at all minor) criminal activities of the previous administration.

  5. P J Evans says:

    They tend to assume terrorism first, and then look for evidence to justify the charges. Because of course anyone critical of Our Beloved Leaders must have something else in mind.

  6. pdaly says:

    All DVDs and VHS tapes come with FBI warnings for pirating. As far as I know there are no Secret Service warnings on them.

    Perhaps electronic journals are different somehow from digital videos. But if MIT were to bring in the feds, wouldn’t you think MIT would have called the FBI and not the Secret Service?
    Wouldn’t it be more likely the Secret Service contacted MIT?

  7. pdaly says:

    re: “Two Days Before MIT and Cambridge Cops Arrested Aaron Swartz, Secret Service Took Over the Investigation”

    BTW, emptywheel, great pickup.

  8. pdaly says:

    If the Secret Service is running the investigation, does this make it harder for Swartz to raise money for a defense fund?

  9. pdaly says:


    Yes, I meant to clarify that I read somewhere that while Swartz was alive he was being prevented somehow from organizing a fund to help him defend himself from the prosecution. I don’t know the details.

  10. phred says:

    @emptywheel: Thanks for the clarification EW.

    Years ago I commented that in the US the law no longer applies to the privileged few and it no longer protects the rest of us. Sadly, Aaron Swartz has become a tragic case in point.

  11. pdaly says:


    It was Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, director of the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard and friend of Aaron Swartz who stated as much.

    “For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

    In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. ”

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    In October 2009 Swartz posted his FBI file online:

    I liked this entry:

    March 9, Manassas, VA:

    AARON SWARTZ posted a weblog titled “NYT Personals” [on February 13 —AS] at In the weblog, SWARTZ quotes the NEW YORK TIMES article in which he was interviewed. SWARTZ also posts “Want to meet the man behind the headlines? Want to have the F.B.I. open up a file on you as well? Interested in some kind of bizarre celebrity product endorsement? I’m available in Boston and New York all this month”.

  13. orionATL says:



    he should have defied the court.

    the only way to break the current subtle but all encomapssing soft-legal-tyranny is to defy abusively selective use of our laws by prosecutors and right-wing judges bent on punishing effective opposition to elected authority.

  14. 4jkb4ia says:


    Never heard of this poster, who admitted that Swartz was mistreated by prosecutors. Point of diary seems to be to defend MIT’s behavior. Thank you for linking to the Perlstein reminiscence which was very good.

    Everyone knows why I am writing this. But there’s no use in throwing up to someone that they used to be a Republican with the politics we have now. I will even quote Chris Koster when he switched parties–“If Barry Goldwater was alive today, he’d be a Democrat, too.” You might have exactly the same political beliefs for 10 years, and the Republicans as a group may have abandoned the place where you are. You might be holding on to Chris Christie saving the party, or some such thing.

  15. orionATL says:


    but what lessig failed to mention was selective gov’t prosecution intended to force an acquaintance of bradley manning to testify against manning by threatening inexcusably long sentences.

    these are the prosecutors who are the detritus of the bush admin’s deluge of illegality – prosecutors obama and holder have coddled for four long years.

  16. thatvisionthing says:

    I know we’re talking Secret Service here and not FBI, but still, we’re talking feds and law enforcement. And still, computer fraud. My mind wanders…

    Like can we think for instance of something close to home with millions of victims? Say, mortgage and foreclosure fraud – don’t banks and servicers do it using computers – MERS? DocX? It was concurrent with Swartz’s hounding and meets all the SS criteria:

    Significant economic or community impact
    Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
    Use of schemes involving new technology

    In spades!

    And closets, has Obama’s Foreclosure Fraud Taskforce ever gotten its own, in an office, with a phone? Are we still waiting or did we give up on that one?

    And agents, here I am remembering bmaz’s 2012 post on use of agents and AGs in the Roger Clemens investigation:


    FBI Investigation (3/5/2008 to present)
    179 Interviewees
    235 Interviews [3C2s?]
    68 Interview Locations
    93 Officers/Agents
    4 Assistant U.S. Attorneys

    Not to mention Swartz’s victims = 0. JSTOR declined to press charges. MIT, shame on them for going along with the AG; it suffered no actual harm I think. In fact, considering the use of the law for terror purposes — isn’t there a name for that, in terrorem or something? Can we call MIT for material support of or complicity in federal terrorism?

    This just sucks. Tell me when we quit destroying ourselves.

  17. thatvisionthing says:

    @Mary McCurnin: Thanks, I’ve read a lot but not nearly everything. I have to say, everything I read I just go damn!

    Damn, damn, damn.

    If there’s somebody I’d love to talk to, it’s Aaron Swartz.

  18. orionATL says:

    @Mary McCurnin:

    i wondered that too.

    given the severely skewed to the right wing federal appellate judiciary, it would not surprise me to learn he had been prohibited by judicial order from fully describing his case or legal situation to the public – a kind of judicial “national security letter” .

    corem nobis?

    no way, these days.

  19. 4jkb4ia says:

    I am going on the basis of three eulogies by people who knew Swartz well, including Cory Doctorow’s which was fantastic. The difference between Swartz and Ivins is that Ivins could not really talk about his mental problems and IIRC got turned over to law enforcement by a woman who led an addiction group. Swartz was able to talk about his mental problems on his blog. Swartz seemed to be a person who lived for pure freedom and knowledge and was going to be denied those two things when he went to jail. He wouldn’t accept the martyrdom that Bradley Manning is likely to get. Swartz also seemed to be a person who was disappointed by the world as a whole, and an unfair prosecution might have been exactly the thing to turn him over the edge.

  20. Mary McCurnin says:

    @4jkb4ia: “Swartz also seemed to be a person who was disappointed by the world as a whole”

    Understandable. He gave his best. He did what he thought was right. He was caught up in the maul of the most powerful government in history and he knew enough to understand they were going to eat him alive. He took that away from them.

  21. pdaly says:


    Aaron Swartz was a fellow in the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard (of which Professor Lessig is the Director) so I assume (but I do not know for a fact) that Lessig’s conflict of interest was contained in this relationship.

    Perhaps the government prosecutor(s) planned to call Lessig, as Director, to the stand as a witness in the government’s prosecution. If so, then Lessig would potentially be in the impossible situation of being called as a witness while simultaneously trying to be Swartz’ lawyer.

  22. orionATL says:


    the mental problems are not the issue, though you would seem to like them to be so in order to do what appears as your assigned job as “defender of kos”.

    the issue is the abusive treatment of citizens by a gov’t bureaucracy intent on closing a case (ivans) and presentting a person accused of a crime that may havebeen only a technical crime (schwartz), with a severe sentence designed to turn him into a lying stool pigeon – this has been the steady tradition of the obama/bush dep’t of justice for 10+ years now.

  23. pdaly says:

    @Mary McCurnin:
    The suicide is tragic. I sincerely hope it came as a surprise to the Feds, because the alternative scenario occurred to me: that Swartz’s life and his blog writings were known to the government which could have used them as a pressure point to help Swartz find ‘the only solution’.

  24. Bad Bos DOJ says:

    The Bos FBI/DOJ has failed to investigate multiple gov corruption issues, healthcare fraud, excessive force, and systemic violence against women and the disabled. Swartz was low hanging fruit on a platter; they couldn’t resist.

  25. orionATL says:

    as for the ” investigation” promised by mit prez raffy-raiz,

    involving a likely clueless, subservient computer professor,

    i can almost quarantee you readers right now,

    that the university will have been judged to have acted in everyone’s best interest – except schwartz’s.

    i can also guarantee you that the university’s counsel, like all organizationallawyers,

    will obstruct this investigation, withhold information, and mislead the university community in any and every way possible

  26. x174 says:

    in us v swartz, i found in footnote one the statement “MIT personnel were acting as government agents” as particularly creepy.

    reminded me of agent smith in the matrix, in which any random individual could be mutated into agent smith.

    still puzzling over the possible significance of the involvement of the ss with the academic jstor database. according to wmbinney, all of our communications have already been compromised so i guess that includes all of the files we’ve ever downloaded, and all of the books we’ve ever checked out.

    sounds like Operation Information Gang Rape is well underway.

    Aaron Swartz, thank you for your courage, & may you rest in peace.

  27. Nick Hentoff says:

    The MPAA likely brought in the Secret Service through their former attorneys, many of whom now hold high-ranking positions in Barack Obama’s DOJ. The case became a political witch hunt in retaliation for his activities on behalf of Internet freedom.

  28. Rayne says:

    Being required to order academic papers through JSTOR means there is a record kept of who obtained what research.

    Swartz’ attempt to liberate what may have been primarily publicly-funded research meant the government could no longer monitor who obtained any particular piece of research.

    Welcome to the panopticon.

  29. Nick Hentoff says:

    @orionATL: It’s much simpler than that. The membership of the MPAA and the RIAA donated tens of millions of dollars to Barack Obama’s campaigns. In return they got their former lawyers embedded in the DOJ like ticks on a fat dog. The same people who previously asked courts to impose tens of millions in sanctions on a housewife who downloaded songs were now directing the DOJ’s newly invigorated criminal copyright prosecutions. This was retaliatory payback, pure and simple.

  30. Gama Xul says:

    “I want to know whether MIT–which is dependent on federal grants for much of its funding–brought in the Secret Service.”

    Who the hell else would have called the Secret Service? It’s not like the SS knew something was happening. Obviously whoever discovered the netbook and started the investigation got word out to the SS because it was a clever use of technology. Everything at MIT is a clever use of technology. And if it’s a potential crime, then the SS (investigates schemes involving new technology) will respond if someone tells them about it. New technology or not, the SS responds because what the hell else are they going to do? Yes, the folks at MIT involved the SS.

    It’s sad that Aaron died so young and we’re left wondering just how brilliant he would have become.

  31. joanneleon says:

    Marcy, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you are looking into this and writing about it.

    Also, I was wondering if anyone knows which “progressive” U.S. Senator Aaron was referring to in his talk here — Senator who went into a rage saying that these internet people must be stopped, etc. He refers to Orrin Hatch first, but it can’t be him. He refers to Chris Dodd later in the talk, but does not say specifically that this was the same senator who threw a fit on him. I tend to think it was Dodd, given that Dodd later became the chief lobbyist for entertainment industry. Oh, sorry, I meant the head of the MPAA.

  32. thatvisionthing says:


    ”If Barry Goldwater was alive today, he’d be a Democrat, too.”


    First of all, he had a spine.

    I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue! – Barry Goldwater

    And then

    It is a fact that Lyndon Johnson and his curious crew seem to believe that progress in this country is best served simply and directly through the ever-expanding gift power of the everlastingly growing Federal Government. One thing we all know, and I assure you I do: that’s a much easier way to get votes than my way. It always has been. It’s political Daddyism, and it’s as old as demagogues and despotism. – Barry Goldwater


    Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism. – Barry Goldwater

    Especially in this diary, I say no.

  33. thatvisionthing says:

    @P J Evans and @joanneleon:

    P J, I believe Joanne hit it on the nose with the link she posted just after your comment. I saw that youtube last night and couldn’t find a transcript, so I did one this morning and am posting it below. Maybe there’s one out there already, Aaron appears to be reading notes from his laptop, but I didn’t see one so here it is, and Marcy can delete or edit as she feels appropriate. But it says so much. Just the name of the conference, Freedom to Connect.

    Also Joanne, Chris Dodd, “now the chief lobbyist for Hollywood,” is ID’d as the one who masterminded COICA, the predecessor to PIPA and SOPA. Several times in the talk, as Aaron is threading his way through the bill’s progress, he marvels, “whoever was behind this was good.” Chris Dodd. I don’t think he’s the same senator you asked Marcy about.


    Transcript: Aaron Swartz keynote – “How we stopped SOPA” at F2C: Freedom to Connect 2012, Washington DC on May 21, 2012

    AARON SWARTZ: So for me, it all started with a phone call. It was September, not last year, but the year before that, September 2010, and I got a phone call from my friend Peter. And he said, “There’s an amazing bill that you have to take a look at.”

    “Well, what is it?” I said.

    “It’s called COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act.”

    “Peter,” I said, “I don’t care about copyright law. Maybe you’re right, maybe Hollywood is right, but either way, what’s the big deal? I’m not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Health care! Financial reform! Those are the issues that I work on. Not something obscure like copyright law.”

    I could hear Peter grumbling in the background. “Look, I don’t have time to argue with you,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter for right now, because this isn’t a deal about copyright.”

    “It’s not?”

    “No,” he said. “It’s a bill about the freedom to connect.”

    Now I was listening. Peter explained what you’ve all probably long since learned, that this bill would let the government devise a list of websites that Americans weren’t allowed to visit. And the next day I came up with lots of ways to try to explain to people. I said it was a great firewall of America. I said it was an Internet block list. I said it was online censorship.

    But I think it’s worth taking a step back, putting aside all the rhetoric and just thinking for a moment about how radical this bill really was. Sure, there are lots of times when the government makes rules about speech. If you slander a private figure, if you buy a television ad that lies to people, if you have a wild party that plays booming music all night, in all these cases the government can come stop you.

    But this was something radically different. It wasn’t the government went to people and asked them to take down particular material that was illegal. They shut down whole websites. Essentially it stopped Americans from communicating entirely with certain groups.

    There’s nothing really like it in U.S. law. If you play loud music all night, the government doesn’t slap you with an order requiring you be mute for the next couple of weeks. They don’t say nobody can make any more noise inside your house. There’s a specific complaint which they ask you to specifically remedy, and then your life goes on. The closest example I could find was a case where the government was at war with an adult bookstore. The place kept selling pornography, the government kept getting the porn declared illegal, and then frustrated they decided to shut the whole bookstore down. But even that was eventually declared unconstitutional. A violation of the First amendment.

    So, you might say, surely COICA would get declared unconstitutional as well. But I knew that the Supreme Court had a blind spot around the First Amendment. More than anything else, more than slander or libel, more than pornography, more even than child pornography, their blind spot was copyright. When it came to copyright, it was like that part of the justices’ brain shut off and they just totally forgot about the First Amendment. You got the sense that deep down they didn’t even think the First Amendment applied when copyright was an issue. Which means that if you did want to censor the Internet, if you wanted to come up with some way that the government could shut down access to particular websites, this bill might be the only way to do it. If it was about pornography it probably would get overturned by the courts, just like the adult bookstore case. But if you claimed it was about copyright? It might just sneak through.

    And that was especially terrifying, because as you know copyright is everywhere. If you want to shut down WikiLeaks, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that you’re doing it because they have too much pornography. But it’s not hard at all to claim that WikiLeaks is violating copyright. Because everything is copyrighted. This speech, you know, the thing I’m giving right now, these words are copyrighted. And it’s so easy to accidentally copy something, so easy in fact that the leading Republican supporter of COICA, Orrin Hatch, had illegally copied a bunch of code into his own Senate website. So if even Orrin Hatch’s Senate website was found to be violating copyright law, what’s the chance that they wouldn’t find something they could pin on any of us?

    There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video of BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in, or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?

    This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the Internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights, the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. The freedoms our country had been built on would be suddenly…deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we’d always taken for granted. And I realized that day talking to Peter that I couldn’t let that happen.

    But it was going to happen. The bill, COICA, was introduced on September 20th, 2010, a Monday, and in the press release heralding the introduction of this bill, way at the bottom, it was scheduled for a vote on September 23rd, just three days later. And while of course there had to be a vote, you can’t pass a bill without a vote, the results of that vote were already a foregone conclusion, because if you looked at the introduction of the law, it wasn’t just introduced by one rogue eccentric member of Congress, it was introduced by the chair of the Judiciary Committee and cosponsored by nearly all the other members, Republicans and Democrats. So yes, there’d be a vote, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise, because nearly everyone who was voting had signed their name to the bill before it was even introduced.

    I can’t stress how unusual this is. This is emphatically not how Congress works. I’m not talking about how Congress should work, the way you see on Schoolhouse Rock. I mean this is not the way Congress actually works. I mean I think we all know Congress is a dead zone of deadlock and dysfunction. There are months of debates and horse trading and hearings and stall tactics. I mean, you know, first you’re supposed to announce that you’re going to hold hearings on a problem and then days of experts talking about the issue, and then you propose a possible solution, you bring the experts back for their thoughts on that, and then other members have different solutions and they propose theirs, and you spend a bunch of time debating, and there’s a bunch of trading to get members over to your cause. And finally you spend hours talking one on one with the different people and that they try and come back with some sort of compromise that you hash out in endless backroom meetings. And then when that’s all done, you take that, and you go through it line by line in public to see if anyone has any objections or wants to make any changes. And then you have the vote. It’s a painful, arduous process. You don’t just introduce a bill on Monday and then pass it unanimously a couple days later. It just doesn’t happen in Congress. But this time, it was going to happen.

    But it wasn’t because there were no disagreements on the issue. There are always disagreements. Some senators thought the bill was much too weak and needed to be stronger. As it was introduced, the bill only allowed the government to shut down websites, and these senators, they wanted any company in the world to have the power to get a website shut down. Other senators thought it was a drop too strong. But somehow, in the kind of thing you never see in Washington, they’d all managed to put their personal differences aside to come together and support one bill they were persuaded they could all live with. A bill that would censor the Internet.

    And when I saw this, I realized, whoever was behind this was good.

    Now the typical way you make good things happen in Washington is you find a bunch of wealthy companies who agree with you. Social Security didn’t get passed because some brave politicians decided their good conscience couldn’t possibly let old people die starving in the streets. I mean, you kidding me? Social Security got passed because John D. Rockefeller was sick of having to take money out of his profits to pay for his workers’ pension funds. Why do that when you can just let the government take money from the workers?

    Now my point is not that Social Security is a bad thing. I think it’s fantastic. It’s just that the way you get the government to do fantastic things is you find a big company willing to back them. The problem is, of course, that big companies aren’t really huge fans of civil liberties. You know, it’s not that they’re against them, it’s just there’s not much money in it.

    Now, if you’ve been reading the press, you probably didn’t hear this part of the story. As Hollywood has been telling it, the great good copyright bill they were pushing was stopped by the evil Internet companies who make millions of dollars off of copyright infringement. But it really wasn’t true. I mean, I was in there in the meetings with the Internet companies – actually, probably all here today – and, you know, if all their profits depended on copyright infringement, they would have put a lot more money into changing copyright law. The fact is, the big Internet companies, they would do just fine if this bill passed. I mean they wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but I doubt they would even have a noticeable dip in their stock price.

    So they were against it, but they were against it like the rest of us on grounds primarily of principle, and principle doesn’t have a lot of money in the budget to spend on lobbyists. So they were practical about it. “Look,” they said, “this bill is going to pass, in fact it’s probably going to pass unanimously, and as much as we try this is not a train we’re going to be able to stop. So we’re not going to support it, we couldn’t support it, but in opposition let’s just try and make it better.” So that was the strategy, lobby to make the bill better. They had lists of changes that would make the bill less obnoxious or less expensive for them or whatever, but the fact remained at the end of the day, it was going to be a bill that was going to censor the Internet and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

    So I did what you always do when you’re a little guy facing a terrible future with long odds and little hope of success. I started an online petition. I called all my friends and we stayed up all night setting up a website for this new group, Demand Progress, with an online petition opposing this noxious bill, and I sent it to a few friends.

    Now, I’ve done a few online petitions before. I’ve worked at some of the biggest groups in the world that do online petitions. I’ve written a ton of them and read even more. But I’ve never seen anything like this. Starting from literally nothing we went to 10,000 signers, then 100,000 signers, and then 200,000 signers, and 300,000 signers, in just a couple of weeks. And it wasn’t just signing a name. We asked these people to call Congress, to call urgently. There was a vote coming up this week, in just a couple days, and we had to stop it. And at the same time we told the press about it, about this incredible online petition that was taking off. And we met with the staff of members of Congress and pleaded with them to withdraw their support for the bill. I mean, it was amazing, it was huge. The power of the Internet rose up in force against this bill – and then it passed unanimously.

    Now, to be fair, some of the members gave nice speeches before casting their vote. And in their speeches they said their office had been overwhelmed with comments about First Amendment concerns behind this bill, comments that had them very worried, so worried in fact they weren’t sure that they still supported the bill. But even though they didn’t support it, they were going to vote for it anyway, they said, because they needed to keep the process moving and they were sure any problems that were had with it could be fixed later.

    So I’ve got to ask you, does this sound like Washington D.C. to you? Since when do members of Congress vote for things that they oppose just to “keep the process moving”? I mean, whoever was behind this was good.

    And then suddenly the process stopped. Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, put a hold on the bill. Giving a speech in which he called it a nuclear bunker buster bomb armed at the Internet, he announced he would not allow it to pass without changes.

    Now, as you may know, a single senator can’t actually stop a bill by themselves, but they can delay it. By objecting to a bill, they can demand Congress spend a bunch of time debating it before getting it passed, and Senator Wyden did. He bought us time. A lot of time, as it turned out. His delay held all the way through the end of that session of Congress, so that when the bill came back it had to start all over again, and since they were starting all over again they figured why not give it a new name, and that’s when it began being called PIPA, and eventually SOPA.

    So there was probably a year or two of delay there. And in retrospect we used that time to lay the groundwork for what came later. But that’s not what it felt like at the time. At the time it felt like we were going around telling people that these bills were awful and in return they told us that they thought we were crazy. I mean, we were kids wandering around waving our arms about how the government was going to censor the Internet. It does sound a little crazy. You can ask Larry tomorrow. I was constantly telling him what was going on, trying to get him involved, and I’m pretty sure he just thought I was exaggerating. Even I began to doubt myself. It was a rough period.

    But when the bill came back and started to moving again, suddenly all the work we had done started coming together. All the folks we talked to about it suddenly began getting really involved and getting others involved. Everything started snowballing. It happened so fast. I remember there was one week where I was having dinner with a friend in the technology industry and he asked what I worked on and I told him about this bill and he said, “Wow! You need to tell people about that!” And I just groaned. And then, just a few weeks later, I remember I was chatting with this cute girl on the subway and she wasn’t in technology at all, but when she heard that I was she turned to me, very seriously, and said, “You know, we have to stop SOPA.”


    So, progress, right?

    But, you know, I think that story illustrates what happened during those couple of weeks, because the reason we won wasn’t because I was working on it or Reddit was working on it or Google was working on it or Tumblr or any other particular person. It was because there was this enormous mental shift in our industry. Everyone was thinking of ways they could help. Often in really clever, ingenious ways. People made videos, they made infographics, they started PACs, they designed ads, they bought billboards, they wrote news stories, they held meetings – everybody saw it as their responsibility to help. I remember at one point during the period, I held a meeting with a bunch of startups in New York, trying to encourage everyone to get involved. And I felt a bit like I was hosting one of these Clinton Global Initiative meetings where I got to turn to every startup founder in the room and go like, what are you going to do, and what are you going to do? And everyone was trying to one-up each other.

    Then there was one day when the shit crystallized. I think it was the day of the hearings on SOPA in the house, the day we got that phrase “It’s no longer okay not to understand how the Internet works.” There was just something about watching those clueless members of Congress debate the bill, watching them insist they could regulate the Internet and a bunch of nerds couldn’t possibly stop them. They really brought it home for people that this was happening, that Congress was going to break the Internet and it just didn’t care.

    I remember when this moment first hit me. I was at an event and I was talking and I got introduced to a U.S. senator, one of the strongest proponents of the original COICA bill, in fact, and I asked him why, despite being such a progressive, despite giving a speech in favor of civil liberties, why he was supporting a bill that would censor the Internet? And you know that typical politician smile he had suddenly faded from his face, and his eyes started burning this fiery red, and he started shouting at me. He said, “Those people on the Internet! They think they can get away with anything! They think they can just put anything up there, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them! They put up everything! They put up our nuclear missiles and they just laugh at us! Well, we’re going to show them. There’s got to be laws on the Internet. It’s got to be under control.”

    Now as far as I know, nobody has ever put up the U.S.’s nuclear missile on the Internet. I mean, it’s not something I’ve heard about. But that’s sort of the point. He wasn’t having a rational concern. Right? It was this irrational fear that things were out of control. Here was this man, a United States senator, and those people on the Internet, they were just mocking him. They had to be brought under control. Things had to be under control.

    And I think that was the attitude of Congress. And just seeing that fire in that senator’s eyes scared me. I think those hearings scared a lot of people. They said this wasn’t the attitude of a thoughtful government trying to resolve tradeoffs in order to best represent its citizens, this was more like the attitude of a tyrant. And so the citizens fought back.

    The wheels came off the bus pretty quickly after that hearing. First the Republican senators pulled out, and then the White House issued a statement opposing a bill. And then the Democrats, left all alone out there, announced they were putting the bill on hold so they could have a few further discussions before the official vote. And that was when, as hard as it was for me to believe, after all this, we had won. The thing that everyone said was impossible, that some of the biggest companies in the world had written off as kind of a pipe dream, had happened. We did it. We won.

    And then we started rubbing it in. You all know what happened next. Wikipedia went black, Reddit went black, CraigsList went black, the phone lines on Capitol Hill flat out melted, members of Congress started rushing to issue statements retracting their support for the bill that they were promoting just a couple days ago. I mean it was just ridiculous. I mean, there’s a chart from the time that captures it pretty well. It says something like January 14th on one side and has this big long list of names supporting the bill, and then just a few lonely people opposing it. And then on the other side it says January 15th. And now it’s totally reversed. Everyone is opposed to it, just a few lonely names still hanging on in support.

    I mean, this really was unprecedented. Don’t take my word for it, but ask former Senator Chris Dodd, now the chief lobbyist for Hollywood. He admitted after he lost that he had masterminded the whole evil plan. And he told the New York Times he’d never seen anything like it during his many years in Congress. And everyone I’ve spoken to agrees. The people rose up and they caused a sea change in Washington. Not the press, which refused to cover the story – just coincidentally their parent companies all happened to be lobbying for the bill. Not the politicians who were pretty much unanimously in favor of it. And the companies who had all but given up trying to stop it and decided it was inevitable. It was really stopped by the people, the people themselves. They killed the bill dead.

    So dead that when members of Congress propose something now that even touches the Internet, they have to give a long speech beforehand about how it is definitely not like SOPA. So dead that when you ask congressional staffers about it, they groan and shake their heads like it’s all a bad dream they’re trying really hard to forget. So dead that it’s kind of hard to believe this story, hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing. Hard to remember how this could have gone any other way.

    And it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare. It was all very real. And it will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name and maybe a different excuse and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the Internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest Internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored.

    We can’t let that happen.

    Now I’ve told this as a personal story partly because I think big stories like this one are just more interesting at human scale. The director J.D. Walsh says good stories should be like the poster for Transformers. There’s a huge evil robot on the left side of the poster and a huge big army on the right side of the poster, and then in the middle at the bottom there’s just a small family trapped in the middle. Big stories need human stakes. But mostly it’s a personal story because I didn’t have time to research any other part of it.

    But that’s kind of the point. We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do. They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission. You remember how hacker newsreaders spontaneously organized this boycott of GoDaddy over their support of SOPA? Nobody told them they could do that. A few people even thought it was a bad idea. It didn’t matter. The senators were right. The Internet really is out of control.

    But if we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us we didn’t actually make a difference, and we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work and it’s our job just to go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers, well then next time they might just win.

    Let’s not let that happen.

  34. Bob Heuman says:

    I certainly hope that the MIT administration had nothing to do with this. This is misguided harassment, essentially a predetermined death sentence with no justice.

  35. John Halle says:

    A wikipedia check on Hochfield turns up her membership on the National Security Higher Education Advisory Board which promotes “increased cooperation between federal authorities and academia . . . facilitated by the political framework brought about by the war on terror.” Also on the panel is U.C. Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, notorious for signing off on the deployment of military grade pepper spray on non-violent student protesters. Obviously, this doesn’t prove anything but makes her seem a pretty likely candidate for calling in the SS.

  36. thatvisionthing says:

    @orionATL: In response to this comment on Naked Capitalism ( on Swartz’s prosecution, Yves Smith replied:

    Yves Smith says:
    January 13, 2013 at 2:02 am

    People in the Harvard of the 60s and 70s would have done that in a heartbeat. You don’t see that sort of thing now.

    I don’t think it is an overstatement to call this a Kristallnacht of our era, in the sense it has made a group that thought it was protected by virtue of being useful (in German, the Jews, here the leftie end of the “creative classes”) are not safe. I’m only on the periphery of that group, but I can tell they are all stunned by his death. I didn’t know Swartz, but everyone who did clearly saw him as extraordinary, not just in his intelligence and energy, but in his generosity and apparent otherworldly-ness.

    The Germans came after the Jews brutally and thuggishly. The action against Swartz was also brutal, but more like sniper fire, picking out a target both deemed to be important in and of itself and to intimidate other activists. My sense is Swartz’s colleagues somehow didn’t connect he didn’t begin to have the means to defend himself. And it’s not clear that would have been effective, the remarks above suggest that the judge would have viewed that sort of help with hostility.

  37. Rayne says:

    I can’t help wonder if we’re missing a piece of this puzzle. Perhaps it will emerge from MIT’s investigation; are MIT’s meetings open, and are records FOIA’ble?

    My gut tells me there’s some trigger we can’t see–like Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) in banking. Is MIT (and other schools) participating in a reporting process with DHS that might have tripped something beyond local/state cops and FBI?

  38. orionATL says:


    thank you, tvt, for that cite.

    and peremptorily let me add in support of yves’ comment:

    for those would-be speech arbiters and concern trolls who like to tusk-tusk over analogies of national socialist party and gov’t behavior in germany in the ’20’s and ’30’s,

    with american democratic and republican party and gov’t behavior in 2001-2013,

    go f–k your elf!

    those analogies can be very meaningful and telling as with yves smith’s comment.

  39. orionATL says:

    @thatvisionthing: @thatvisionthing:

    thank you, tvt, for that cite.

    and peremptorily let me add in support of yves’ comment:

    for those would-be speech arbiters and concern trolls who like to tusk-tusk over analogies of national socialist party and gov’t behavior in germany in the ’20’s and ’30’s,

    with american democratic and republican party and gov’t behavior in 2001-2013,

    go f–k your elf!

    those analogies can be very meaningful and telling as with yves smith’s comment.

  40. Just A Shot Away says:

    To say that the DOJ’s treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz’s plight last August, I wrote that he was “being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness”.

    Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience. Others speculated that “the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them.”

    I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times. Swartz’s activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles – namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it – and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government: challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free expression and assembly posed by the government’s efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other weapons to limit access to information.

  41. Gus Gordon says:

    @orionATL: Thanks (I think) for fingering Mulitzas’s characteristic cant.

    Even more nauseating are the comments trailing the apologia for Big Brother’s totalitarian tactics. I’m gobsmacked to see how many of the Daily Kos readers have made themselves nice and cozy under the thumb of what Wm Burroughs called “the policeman inside.”

    Freud once remarked that “The highly intelligent are more prone to melancholia.” Too true. One of the more callous Kosheads even had the bad taste to write, and this is a direct cut-and-paste:

    “And no, most geniuses don’t have “issues”. (sigh)”

    Please be clear that the “…(sigh)” is a [sic] and not me. In that commenter’s view, Aaron had broken the law. Period. No further discussion warranted. Then again, it would appear s/he wasn’t personally acquainted with any geniuses. Bloody hell, yes! Geniuses do have issues. These yokels would, too, if they ever removed their craniums from their lower gastrointestinal tracts and took a look around.

    For Aaron, I’d venture it wasn’t so much his terror of being incarcerated, as the sober recognition of the mentality he knew he would be inevitably be bucking his entire life, For anyone contemplating why he chose to check out, his final blog post (, a game theory analysis of The Dark Knight, makes the tenor of his thoughts plainly visible. The guy knew he couldn’t win, and as profane as it will strike many for me to say this, Aaron’s choice took more courage than either Mulitzas or his smugly docile fanboys will ever comprehend.

  42. Mike D. says:

    I’m pretty sure they could argue that “new technology” means what they say it means within reason, or at least that it could apply to technologies that you or Aaron Swartz wouldn’t allow that it would.

  43. sevysmith says:

    >>Use of schemes involving new technology
    >Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.

    Probably anything with a computer counts as new technology. Confirmed by googling the Secret Service agent, he was a speaker at secureworld 2010 and gave a brief summary of his role.

    He is “assigned to the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force/Computer Crimes Section responsible for working with Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies to investigate violations of Federal and State law in regards to bank fraud, credit card fraud, identity theft and electronic crimes, as well as provide computer forensics support to investigations. ”

    It looks suspicious because it’s part of the secret service but the ECTF seem to provide computer forensics and investigate anything electric to anyone in a uniform.

    >this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.

    This was yet another computer investigation for the local police.

    I bet he was actually excited about doing something interesting for once at MIT. Instead he’s involved in the tragic loss of a brilliant mind trying to make the world work a little better.

  44. thatvisionthing says:

    @sevysmith: Are you shitting me?

    responsible for working with Federal, State and local law enforcement agencies to investigate violations of Federal and State law in regards to bank fraud,

    He’s assigned in New England for God’s sake, and Aaron Swartz is who he goes after?

    Seriously, who makes the assignments?

  45. blueskybigstar says:

    Emptywheel, please, look at the two articles at, one entitled “Who Killed Aaron Swartz?” and the other “Aaron Swartz’s Suspicious Death.”

  46. blueskybigstar says:

    Bruce Ivins was not even in the town where some of the anthrax was mailed. They prosecuted another guy for a whole year. The very next day after having their asses handed to them in court, they pointed to a very dead Bruce Ivins and said he did it. They said that they had been following him for a long time and was their main suspect. If that were the case, why prosecute another guy for an entire year. A dead man can’t defend himself in court.

  47. Kelley Lynch says:

    I am relieved Empty Wheel has written about the role of the Secret Service in this matter. One would assume that a more ordinary investigation/prosecution would involve the FBI, as with the PACER investigation which is nearly farcical. Clearly, the Secret Service are involved due to the MIT/Boston hacker investigations involving Wikileaks, Bradley Manning, David House, Jacob Applebaum, and so forth,. What I am interested to know is the role of MIT in working with our government against young people. MIT accepts federal funding that is paid for by the taxpayers. I would assume the Aaron Swartz investigation (which appears to be an outright entrapment case by the Secret Service) is not what it appears to be. As for the prosecutor, she’s a bald faced liar. No prosecutor obtains a Superceding Indicment who isn’t using the maximum penalty against someone. I think all roads lead directly to Washington and this case appears to illuminate the Obama administration’s obsession with itself over Wikileaks. Obama clearly hasn’t learned to take responsibility for one’s own actions. It was his State Department trash talking. Also, his Military was engaged in the Collateral Murder episode. The most transparent government ever appears to be run by a gang of clowns. I am waiting to hear what Barack Obama and Eric Holder have to say about this unconscionable witch hunt. All parents should pay close attention. Aaron Swartz downloaded research – probably primarily paid for by the taxpayers — TOO FAST. That’s his actual crime.

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