Aaron Swartz hung himself a few days ago in his Brooklyn apartment.
Many of you will ask: who was Aaron Swartz? He was only a cross between Henry David Thoreau and Steve Jobs, someone who stood at the divide between the digital world and a visionary quest for freedom. A man who devised RSS at the age of 14. Those of you who use any sort of online reader to collect or aggregate the blogs and websites you follow couldn’t have done so without the genius Swarz employed to create it.
Those of you who follow social networking sites will have heard of Reddit, which is a community of users who share their favorite links and articles and argue and celebrate their meanings. Swartz created Reddit when he was the ripe old age of 20, then sold it to Condé Nast for a sum that would’ve transformed many of the rest of us into Sybarites or 1%ers. Heard of Creative Commons? Aaron helped create that as well. Remember the movement that stopped Congress from criminalizing online sharing (aka “priracy”) through passage of SOPA a year or so ago? That was Aaron’s doing too. Wikileaks? He was instrumental in its U.S. support network.
In short, Swartz was a rebel in the best sense of the word–one with a cause. He believed information should be free. Not just free in the sense of not having to pay for it. But more importantly in the sense of being readily accessible to all. For that reason, he subverted the court records system which allowed a company to monetize otherwise public records. The feds didn’t take too well to that one and investigated him for placing millions of court records in the public domain. But they didn’t prosecute him ultimately.
That changed when Aaron determined to do the same to the articles, essays, journals and books archived at the JSTOR website. This company, formed via a joint agreement with a number of major universities and publishers, stored millions of documents on its server and allowed university faculty and students free access. Everyone else had to pay. Even though many of these journals and articles were written at public universities subsidized by the very taxpayers who were locked out of its database. I note JSTOR features a condolence message and appreciation of Aaron on its About page.
Swartz took a laptop to MIT and used its computer network to download millions of JSTOR documents. He never did anything with them. Never uploaded them or made them available to anyone. He never caused any damage or harm to anyone’s economic interests. But what did he do? He threatened corporate monopolies on information. He set an example for other pioneers, dreamers and malcontents to question and threaten the underpinnings of the digital economy.
For that reason, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, threw the book at Aaron. She filed 13 felony counts against him that could’ve put him in prison for between 35-50 years. His legal defense would’ve bankrupted him. Not to mention that Aaron faced psychological demons in the form of severe depression.
Oh, and did I mention that Ortiz hopes to parlay her tough on cyber-pirates crusade into a run for the governor’s mansion in the next election? She’s made a masterful stroke in bringing Aaron Swartz to his knees. Right about now, she’s meeting with her crisis management consultant figuring how to spin this one so she appears suitably chastened, but still manages to uphold the righteousness of her petty, finger-wagging view of U.S. copyright law. Shame.
Aaron’s family and girl friend in their own statements have pointed the finger squarely at the federal government for prosecutorial overreaching and at MIT for not renouncing the federal prosecution as JTOR did. In response (and far too late I might add), MIT’s president released a chastened statement saying he would examine the university’s behavior in this incident to determine what, if any failings there were (and there were many undoubtedly). The response of Anonymous has been to hack the school’s site and bring it down.
Swartz has been eulogized by illustrious figures in the free information movement like Larry Lessig and Glenn Greenwald. His death, which I’m inclined to call martyrdom given the government’s gross abuse of power, has brought him into the mainstream media in a way it never did during his life.
I had a few e-mail exchanges with Aaron when I first began blogging. At that time, publishers did not maintain permanent URLs for their online articles. So if a blogger created a link to an article it wouldn’t necessarily stay live. In fact, oddly some publishers mistrusted bloggers or at the least did nothing to help their work by maintaining live links. They’d create a link they only promised would be live for a week or two weeks. Astonishing now when you think of it. Aaron conceived of a way to create a permanent link. You entered the NY Times URL and his program automatically converted it to a link that stayed live forever. It was miraculous and a lifesaver for bloggers.
In his article about Swartz at The New Yorker, Tim Wu conceived of the analogy to Thoreau I used above and it’s a near-perfect one. Thoreau too rebelled against convention. He was not just an iconoclast, but a penurious psychological eccentric who flouted society’s rules. He lived the life of a loner with his books and ideas and the company of a select group of bookish intellectuals.
But what ideas! His magnificent ideas! How they rocked the world of mid-nineteenth century America. Can anyone truly understand American democracy without first having read and absorbed the profundity of On Civil Disobedience. Could the history of civil disobedience and conscientious objection hold anywhere near the power they do in this country were it not for this essay? Where would the American environmental movement be without his Walden?
Similarly, Aaaron Swartz, had he lived, would’ve made an indelible mark on our culture. As it is, his life was tragically cut short due to the obtuse, cold-blooded hounding of Justice Department attorneys who should be fired. There is no excuse for what they did. Were this an aberration I would not be as angry as I am. But Obama’s Justice Department has hounded many others who pursued idealistic causes as whistleblowers including Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Jeffrey Sterling and Shamai Leibowitz. Kiriakou is going to prison. Leibowitz spent two years in prison. Sterling is not in prison, but was bled dry and driven into bankruptcy by the feds.
Why does this administration, elected by liberal Democrats, believe that being more anti-constitutional than even the Bushites is politically desirable? What principle are they upholding other than monopolistic control by the corporate 1%? What happened to Aaron Swarz is odious. It is a black mark against the Justice Department. I note the U.S. attorney in Boston released a statement saying it would stay silent “out of respect to the family.” That almost make me apoplectic. “Respect?” What sort of respect? The respect they offered to Aaron Swartz when he lived? 35 years worth of respect in a federal prison?
In the most cruel of ironies, the U.S. attorney just announced she was dropping charges against Aaron. Too bad he’s not alive to enjoy it.
Does being a U.S. attorney entitled you to hound visionary geniuses who trespass the societal code into an early grave? Do you remember Alan Turing who broke the Nazi code during World War II and who pettifogging bureaucrats tormented for his homosexuality until he too took a bite of the poisoned fruit. Or imagine that instead of a constable throwing Henry Thoreau into the town jail for 30 days for refusing to serve in the Mexican War, they’d sent him to a federal prison and treated him as a traitor to his nation. Imagine a world without the magnificent writing he later gave us.
Is this the legacy Barack Obama is offering us? Driving the iconoclasts among us into federal prisons? For shame.