Editor's Note to Quinn Norton's Account of the Aaron Swartz Investigation


We have just published Quinn Norton's account of her life inside the Federal investigation of Aaron Swartz for the alleged crime of downloading too many JSTOR articles too quickly. 

The story fills in a key time in the investigation, from Swartz's arrest on January 6 until about June of that year. Norton's narrative is deeply personal -- she was romantically involved with Swartz back then -- and it felt correct to let her tell the story her way. This post is intended to provide context for people who have not been following the Swartz case closely. 

Here is the basic set of facts. The prosecution alleged -- and it seems fairly certain that this part is true -- that on September 26, 2010, Aaron Swartz placed a laptop inside a wiring closet at MIT. Through the laptop, Swartz, a fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics, was able to download articles from the non-profit scholarly research repository JSTOR very quickly. 

This drew the attention of various IT authorities at JSTOR and MIT, and they played a cat-and-mouse game with Swartz over the next few months. They'd figure out a way to stop the downloads, and Swartz would come up with a way to route around the defenses. Then they'd find another way to stop the downloads, and Swartz would defeat that. And so on, and so forth, until January 6, 2011 when he was arrested by Cambridge police. Prosecutors allege that Swartz managed to download several million articles this way, which was 100 times more articles than the rest of MIT combined during the period in question. It is not known precisely what he planned to do with them. 

Larry Lessig, a friend of Swartz, has suggested that there were several possibilities for the documents. Perhaps Swartz was going to simply use them for research as he'd done with a 2008 paper published in Stanford Law Review. It was also possible that Swartz intended to release the articles to people outside the United States in the third world or more broadly, perhaps through a file sharing network. None of these things actually happened, though. Instead, the files were "returned" to JSTOR and the organization settled with Swartz.

Later reporting has shown that the government weighed a document supposedly penned by Swartz called the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto to show that Swartz intended to widely share the documents in question. This, the prosecution implied, justified certain searches they'd made

And it's on this topic that Norton's account should prove the most enlightening. Fearing that the government might seize her computer, which contained large numbers of communications with sources in the hacking and activist communities, and hoping she could explain to the prosecutors that they had it all wrong, Norton took a proffer offer from prosecutors. She had a meeting with them on April 13, 2011, confident that because she did not know anything about Swartz's JSTOR project, nothing she could say could hurt Swartz's case. She turned out to be wrong to her enduring dismay.

It appears that the prosecution did not know about about the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, despite the fact that it was published on Swartz's blog and widely circulated within the open-access community, until Norton herself told them about the document during her meeting with prosecutors. As Norton details, she did not think it was possible that the Manifesto was news to the government, but it seems that it was. 

Keep in mind that this was four months after Swartz's initial arrest and four months after Federal prosecutors stepped in to go after Swartz. (State attorneys had reportedly been planning to let Swartz off with a slap on the wrist.) 

In later grand jury testimony, Norton called the authorship of the document into question, saying there were four prospective authors, so it would be impossible to determine which of them had penned the lines that prosecutors quoted in court documents: "Swartz advocated 'tak[ing] information, wherever it is stored, mak[ing] our copies and shar[ing] them with the world.'"

Norton's direct involvement in the case ended long before Swartz's life did. She appeared before the grand jury on June 16, 2011, and her relationship with Swartz ended around then. According to Norton and multiple independent sources, she and Swartz remained close throughout those first six months of 2011, and friends afterwards as well. 

A couple of publication notes. First, Quinn Norton did not accept money for the publication of this story. We offered. She has chosen to donate the money we're paying her. Second, I edited this story. Third, we've published several snippets of writing that Norton penned during the time of the trial along with her present account because their content -- a letter to the prosecutor and a reflection on Norton's father -- are an important lens for her state of mind at the time of the investigation. 

Here are the supporting documents of interest in the case:

The full slate of court documents, totaling 650 pages 
Aaron Swartz arrest report, dated January 6, 2011
Quinn Norton subpoena, dated March 3, 2011. 
Aaron Swartz original indictment, dated July 14, 2011. 
Aaron Swartz revised or 'superceding' indictment, dated August 12, 2012.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets


Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.


What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.



More in Technology

Just In