The Trial of Aaron Swartz 2020



Aaron Swartz, a programmer and activist, took his own life by hanging on Jan. 11, 2013 at the age of 26. At the time of his suicide, Aaron Swartz had been indicted and was facing up to 35 years in jail for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984 (CFAA). Aaron had hooked up his lap top computer to the MIT computer network and downloaded articles from the JSTOR data base in violation of the terms of services. His trial was scheduled for April 2013, needless to say the trial will not take place in the court of the US legal system. This play carries out the trial on stage. 

The Play 


"Transparency can be a powerful thing, but not in isolation. So, let’s stop passing the buck by saying our job is just to get the data out there and it’s other people’s job to figure out how to use it. Let’s decide that our job is to fight for good in the world."

Aaron Swartz

 (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013) 

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”


 Carmen M. Ortiz 

United States Attorney

The trial of Aaron Swartz, USA 2020 continues the conversation that the death of Aaron Swartz started. The trial challenges each one of us to explore our responsibility as members of society, our relationship to each other and to the power of government and organizations. It provides an experiential exercise for citizenship that addresses laws we are called upon to obey. The play casts the audience, as jurists, where we must be as vigilant observers of our government. The play addresses complex issues that continue to evolve in the digital age. It is about the role of information and digital technology in our democracy.

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Our lives are dominated by digital experience. We are immersed  by apps, dependent on  downloads and touched by the ever present power and expectation of our connectivity.   Every generation is absorbed by the technology of the moment. But one man in America was accused of going  too far. Hailed as visionary, labeled a thief, one man paid a terrible price.  On January 11, 2013, at the age of 26 Aaron Swartz committed suicide. He was   facing the potential of spending his life in jail for what some claimed was illegal downloading.  Was he guilty? Do the laws of our forefathers that claim to govern what is right or wrong even apply in  our crowd sourcing  world? This play imagines the trial of Aaron Swartz. However this is  a trial he could never have imagined. This  is  a trial of equals. The audience is both  jury and judge. An audience driven  twitter  feed accompanies the performance as does a running tally of the final  verdict. This play captures the interactive roots  of democracy and re-visions the meaning and underpinnings of justice.


 Was Aaron Swartz innocent?  You, the audience, will decide.


The Issues 

Aaron’s suicide generated a wide range of reactions from personal reflections, web dedication, memorials, conferences and congressional investigations. The public dialogue as experienced in articles, comments and other media venues reflected the tensions of American democracy cast against the background of the  new age of digital technology. In addition to focusing of the role of government and the legitimacy of particular laws, the public discourse has examined the role of prosecutors in carrying out their duties to enforce laws. The role, access to and ownership of information especially that created through public funding, and intellectual property in society has been called into question.

The Setting  

The trial of Aaron Swartz, USA 2020 stipulates to the charges against Aaron Swartz and moves beyond the particulars of his guilt in regard to the JSTOR  case. The trial takes place in the age of the information revolution and technological change and leverages the digital environment to enhance the audience experience. It occurs against the background of ever-increasing legal restrictions on access to information and concentration of power in the hands of few. The ever-expanding availability of data and its impact on current life is a reality we have to confront. The trial explores the centuries-old challenge of societies the systemic battle of who controls information, the power of the state against the individual.


I learned about Aaron Swartz after his death at age 26 through my interest in Personal Democracy Forum, an organization committed to improving our democracy. Aaron although young in years appeared to have a good grasp of the challenges and the threats to American democracy and the impact of money on politics. Aaron’s writing about transparency and the importance of collaborative citizen action to make the world a better place were moving. It was while reading about his unfortunate suicide while awaiting prosecution for downloading articles from an MIT server that I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I came to realize that his story  evoked  sadness that my mother, at age 18,  had been jailed in Poland for numerous years , accused and convicted of carrying political literature.

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