Aaron Swartz, RIP

See Cory Doctorow’s eulogy here
Some of us in India may not have heard of Aaron Swartz, a 26 year old activist who was heavily involved in copyright policy issues and issues surrounding technology freedom. He committed suicide on Jan 11th, 2013 and his story is a sad one which is certainly worth sharing. However, what’s also important to note, are the circumstances which may have led his eventual suicide.
While it cannot be confirmed, it appears that his arrest and indictment for charges of downloading academic papers from MIT and JSTOR resulting in possible jail time of over 50 years and 4 million dollars in fines may have been the cause. JSTOR apparently had dropped the charges, but the US government continued the case and racked up a total of 14 counts of felony against him. (Note: it is unclear whether MIT pursued the charges or not). Clearly he was seen as very troublesome by the government and his online activism must’ve had a lot to do with that.
At the age of 14, Aaron had co-authored the “RSS 1.0” specification. He was also part of the original Creative Commons technical team. He later also was a co-creator of the popular social news site Reddit. It was after this, perhaps, that he started catching the governments attention. He saw no sense in the American public having to pay for access to cases which were in the public domain, which was how the PACER system that was in place, worked. Then, “After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw 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.”
He went on to found DemandProgress, a group that was very important to the successful protests against the SOPA / PIPA. Cory Doctorow writes a beautiful eulogy here, which goes on to talk more about what he had accomplished in such a short period. While he wrote publicly about his depression, he was a passionate person, who believed very strongly in making information more available to the public. And it appears that following this path angered those who strive to strengthen copyright and closed knowledge systems.
Aaron had apparently downloaded 4.5 million academic papers after placing his laptop in MIT’s halls (of which he was not a student) and accessing JSTOR’s database. This is apparently not uncommon at MIT, however it came back to bite him. And certainly, if he did illegally download papers, action should be appropriately taken. However, as Lessig points out in his blog, ‘appropriate’ is the key word there. In his words,
“Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.”
(Tangential note: just 3 days ago, JSTOR decided to give out over 4 million articles for free.)
“Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.”
And this is what I think is important for all of us to note. Copyright laws and technology laws,  allegedly for promoting and benefiting society, have become so viciously strengthened and protected that there is continuously disappearing sense of justice in them. Lobbyist powers have no small role to play in encouraging the ever strengthening information regime. And of course, it’s no secret that once governments pander to these interests in the domestic arena, they usually carry these on to the international arena as well. ACTA was a prime example of that and the TPP continues to be one.
Certainly, incentives need to be protected but this cannot be done at the cost of justice. While he was at one end trying to pursue this cause, Swartz also ended up as a victim.
It speaks of Swartz’s passion and attempts for aligning the world with his sense of justice, when someone of Lawrence Lessig’s stature writes to Swartz, “We are all incredibly sorry to have let you down”.
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1 thought on “Aaron Swartz, RIP”

  1. Good to have noted Swartz’s suicide, his incredible abilities and knowledge, the pursuit of open access and justice that he strived for, and his many initiatives. In all that, the last line that lionizes Lessig is so very out of place.

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