Which Long Magazine Profile of the Aaron Swartz Case Should You Read?

Adrian Chen of Gawker has a helpful post ranking the major Aaron Swartz stories that have appeared in magazines. For those following the Swartz case, it’s worth checking out.

Like Chen, I was a little frustrated with the first-person recounting of the case by Swartz’s former girlfriend Quinn Norton, a journalist who apparently agreed to cooperate with the prosecution and told them about the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. It’s a very interesting story given Norton’s role in the case. But it’s hard to read her version of events as objective, as even its publisher seemed to recognize. For example, consider how Norton discusses why Swartz had collected the JSTOR articles. After explaining that she had told the prosecutors about the Manifesto in response to that question, and that Swartz was very angry at her for it, Norton mentions the possibility that Swartz might have collected the JSTOR articles for research purposes rather than to release them. Here’s how Norton presents the point:

Later I listened to Aaron on the phone with a journalist describe downloading 400,000 law journal articles to do text analysis revealing what kind of legal research was being funded by what kind of companies in 2008, and publishing an academic paper at Stanford about it, all as explanation of why he might have downloaded the JSTOR articles. It was the best answer legally to the question [the prosecutors had asked as to why Swartz had downloaded the JSTOR articles].

Note that Norton isn’t saying that Swartz actually said he downloaded the JSTOR database for that reason. Rather, we get a statement that Norton was present at some point when Swartz told a journalist that there was a possibility that he had done so for that reason. Given that Norton is herself a journalist, it’s fair to wonder if that just means that she and Swartz had a conversation about the issue. After Norton told the prosecutors about the Manifesto, and Swartz was angry at her for mentioning it, did Swartz complain to Norton that she hadn’t told prosecutors a more favorable story, such that he might have been accessing the articles for research purposes? Of course, we don’t know that; that’s just one possibility. But the careful and ambiguous wording leaves a lot open.

Thanks to Brian Bodensteiner for the link.

UPDATE: Via Twitter, Quinn Norton responds:

I’m being criticized by @AdrianChen and Orin Kerr for not being objective about my life and my lover being destroyed. Christ, boys, really?

Speaking for myself, I am not criticizing Norton for not being objective. I have nothing but respect for Norton if she wants to express outrage and sadness. She’s been through hell, and I appreciate her telling us about her view of the case. But I read her essay as not just expressing emotion but also telling us what really happened. She was there: She saw what we didn’t see. And if we’re trying to figure out what happened from the essay — which I was when I read it, at least — lack of objectivity is worth noting even if it is understandable.