It seems silly to jump on the “RIP Aaron Swartz bandwagon” at this point. The internet is abuzz with news stories about his recent suicide. It is a tragedy that will be told and retold over the next weeks. I expect long biographical articles about his life to start appearing any hour now. People will reminisce on their encounters with him and write eloquent and moving pieces on the interaction. I will read many of them and I will bemoan the loss of someone so intelligent and influential in the 21st century along with the rest of the internet. He did much in his 26 years of life and it is unfortunate that we are all left here wondering what the next 26 years could have brought the world. Is that selfish of me? To wonder how many projects Swartz could have spear headed? How much he could have changed for the better?
The Background and Story
Among his many ventures Swartz founded Demand Progress – a website dedicated to campaigning against policy that infringes on civil liberties and rights. The site was instrumental in the fight against SOPA and PIPA (which are, to date some of the worst pieces of legislation ever. So bad I believe the creators should be held accountable for their acts of terrorism against the United States, but thats another story). Its safe to say that his contributions to that campaign alone have impacted my ability to write this today in 2013 and (hopefully) had a long term impact on such issues in the future. As of today in January 2013 Demand Progress has a series of campaigns that can be found here. He may be gone, but causes he supported will live on and his organization will continue to function and bring awareness regarding these important issues.
On July 19, 2011 Swartz was indicted with charges that he stole more than four million documents from JSTOR – a database for scientific and academic materials. Swartz was seen as a Robin Hood-like figure by some for this act. Although JSTOR is a non-profit entity with reasonable goals the price point for researching though it can lead authors into hundreds of dollars worth of spending for a dozen articles (note: academic institutions and some accredited universities pay JSTOR an annual fee which allows their students to access the information without charge). Others (manly those who wish to control these documents and academics ill-suited to live in the information age) heavily supported legal action and took the then 24 year old Swartz to court for:
“13 felony charges, including breaching site terms and intending to share downloaded files through peer-to-peer networks, computer fraud, wire fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture. (source)”.
If Swartz had been found guilty he would have faced a million dollar fine and several decades in jail. The case continued until last Friday, January 11, 2013 when Swartz took his life. Given the length of time such cases can hang around in the system its not unreasonable to assume this could have impacted Swartz life for many years – not counting jail time.
Unrelated to the 2011 indictment Swartz had been involved (in 2008) in a movement to make documents from Pacer – Public Access to Court Electronic Records – documents free an available to the public. He did this by downloading (some would call it liberating) 19,856,160 pages of text from the system. According to Ars Technica:
“Open access to information has long been a passion for Swartz, and he has a history of using unorthodox and controversial means to pursue it. In 2008, he used an automated script to download more than 2 million documents from PACER, the website the federal judiciary uses to distribute court documents. PACER is ordinarily paywalled, but the judicial branch was experimenting with offering paywall-free access to selected libraries. Swartz used the program to circumvent the paywall. The effort led to an FBI investigation, but no charges were ever filed.” (Source: Ars Technica)
There will be a great deal of finger pointing as people come to terms with this loss. There always is. Anger is one of the Stages of Grief and it seems that blame is an integral part in the expression of anger. I hope (perhaps selfishly) that we can begin to understand how twisted our judicial system has become and take this as a warning. A million dollar fine? How exactly do people pay for that? Do we seriously expect someone to spend 30 years in jail to get out at an income level sufficient to pay down that debt? The average American has $8,299 of revolving (credit card) debt per household – which pales in comparison to a MILLION DOLLARS. The economy is in the toilet and the average American is struggling with rising personal debt levels yet we expect someone to come out of jail and pay off a million dollars?
A Decent Society?
a “decent society”wouldn’t be destroying incredible ppl for something so vulgar like copyright (Jed Miller on Twitter)
What does this say about our society? hmmmm? Where we would prosecute a young intelligent man for acts with no victims? At the same time what type of society would we live in without these legal limits? What would it look like if we took a laissez-faire approach to the judicial system? Would things be better? Worse? I don’t know. I honestly don’t.
I do know that the academic and legislative power in this country has grown old and out of touch with the modern world. Bills like SOPA should never exist in a free society. However they do. Partly because of human nature, partly because the people involved have no idea what this new fanged internet is all about. Aaron Swartz knew what technology was all about. His opinions had more place in the 21st century than most politicians. Yet here we are left with Swartz projects and ideas but without him. Perhaps thats why these types of crimes have become so sensationalized by the more traditional segments of out population – because misunderstanding breeds fear. Is a fear based legal system – a system build on strict rules and extreme government retaliation when the rule are broken appropriate for modern times? Or does the system do more harm than good at this point?
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. (source Lessing Blog V.2)
Update 12-13 20:45: A Huffington Post article continues this them and provides excerpts from Swartz families statement:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” the statement reads. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”(Source Huffington Post)
Where to go From Here
There is currently a petition on the official White House website calling for the removal of District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office in regards to this case. At the time of this writing there are
734 856 914 1,687 signatures out of the needed 25,000. Its an interesting concept, although reactive rather than proactive in my opinion. The deed is done, where was outrage over the last year?
Update 1-12-13 23:00 – a group of sites will be “going white” in honor of Swatz. During the SOPA/PIPA debate many sites “went black” to protest the censorship bills, so “going white” is a somewhat poetic way to mark his passing. For more information see the blog post here or google “because of Aaron Swartz” . The sites will be replacing their front pages with a white icon on January 18, 2013 for 24 hours to honor Swartz. (This blog will auto-post the icon on the 18th. The page will be viewable here after that date).
If you would like to learn more about Aaron Swartz I suggest you view the materials on his website – specifically his “Raw Nerve” series of articles and his page “If I get hit by a truck” – a short and sweet will published by Swartz in 2002 that showed a great deal of foresight on his part. He ends his wishes with the sentiment:
“Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”
But I cannot help but think that we, the ones left here on Earth are the ones who will do the missing. We’ll miss all the wonderful contributions he could have made. I think we should all find that very sad, but I know we’ll move on – just with fewer good ideas coming into our world.
Aaron Swartz Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://www.aaronsw.com/>.
Bilton, Nick. “Internet Activist Charged in Data Theft.” Bits Blog – NYTimes.com. New York Times, 19 July 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/reddit-co-founder-charged-with-data-theft/>.
Demand Progress. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://demandprogress.org/>.
Ingram, Matthew. “The web responds to the death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz.” GigaOM. N.p., 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://gigaom.com/2013/01/12/the-web-responds-to-the-death-of-hacker-activist-aaron-swartz/>.
Lee, Timothy B. “Former Reddit co-owner arrested for excessive JSTOR downloads.” Ars Technica. N.p., 19 July 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2011/07/reddit-founder-arrested-for-excessive-jstor-downloads/>.
Lundin, Leigh. “the Theif Who Stole Knowledge.” Criminal Brief. N.p., 31 July 2011. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <http://criminalbrief.com/?p=17625>.
Schwartz, John. “Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist, Dies at 26.” New York Times. N.p., 12 Jan. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2013. <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0>.