The Legacy of Aaron Swartz

  • Aaron Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit and a developer of RSS 1.0 web feed software. Photo Sage Ross

Hi again,

I have to tell you in advance this is going to be a rather hard thing to have to read through.

Last Friday Aaron Swartz—Reddit co-founder and a developer of RSS web feed software—was found dead in his apartment, having hanged himself.

Swartz, 26, was to go on trial in April, charged by American prosecutors for the illegal copying and attempted distribution of academic articles. He obtained these files by hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network via a computer wiring closet, according to the federal prosecutors in Boston. They allege Swartz swiped about 4 million articles from JSTOR, a pay-subscription article database, and was planning to release them for free on the Internet.

At his funeral, his father Robert proclaimed that Swartz “was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”

Defenders of Swartz’ actions accuse the government of trying to make an example out of the young hacktivist. JSTOR had already dropped the charges once the cache of documents was returned to them. Others, such as the analysis of Time magazine—which instantly dismisses his actions and ideology—are not as agreeable.

“In Swartz’s case, a misdemeanor conviction and a stern warning that the next infraction would result in a felony charge would have likely put him on a straight path,” wrote Adam Cohen in Time last week.

Sure, for all we know, Swartz could have gone to court in April and received a plea bargain or some other form of slap on the wrist. As a matter of law Swartz probably would not have been in jail for more than a year. This largely has to do with Swartz’ intention—the documents’ free and open distribution on the Internet. Even though his actions are illegal, they are not for personal gain—in fact, they are more so for collective, communal gain. Many are opposed to this democratic view of freedom of information, yet at one time this notion of democratizing content was paramount to the Web’s existence. Cohen’s belief that Swartz’s needed to be corrected, his path realigned, is wrong. Sure, Swartz was in violation of the law of today, but he certainly did not deserve to be.

Dating back decades, but perhaps archived most famously by the 1986 manifesto, The Conscience of a Hacker by “The Mentor” aka Loyd Blankenship, hackers, cyberpunks and computer science prophets have proclaimed an ideology of free information. They “use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons… and you call us criminals.”

Throughout his career, Swartz became even more revered for his activism than his inventions. He campaigned against the Stop Online Piracy Act and its American Senate counterpart, which would have authorized the Justice Department to force search engines, Internet service providers, and other companies to remove any content—once served an order—that is alleged to be infringing on copyright. Detractors to the proposed legislation said it would destroy the free and open Internet. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, written by Swartz in 2008, is in this tradition of non-barred knowledge hunting:

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

It is no surprise then that Swartz was a friend and possible source of Wikileaks. Since the dawn of networks there have been the curious; there have been those waiting for information to be free. We started this blog last year with words from William Gibson, author of acclaimed cyberpunk literature such as 1984’s Neuromancer —and I called him the godfather. Gibson and his contemporaries were aware of the dangers to knowledge ownership, probably because most of them were hackers as well. They knew the promise of the World Wide Web was to allow for people to connect and share without the barriers of access that had plagued other media, ones easier to monetize and monopolize. But corporations got to work, and now the Web is dead.

With the rise of apps and web 2.0, write’s Michael Wolff for Wired, “the Web of countless entrepreneurs was being overshadowed by the single entrepreneur-mogul-visionary model, a ruthless paragon of everything the Web was not: rigid standards, high design, centralized control.” This is happening all over the digital sphere, with newspapers installing online paywalls for their content, and fair use and fair dealing copyright laws constantly being restricted. It is indeed ironic that Swartz has come to be immortalized in this context—a genius and innovator—when he devoted his life to fighting this entrepreneurial-mogul paradigm of content ownership.

Swartz was fighting for open access. It is no surprise then that Tim Berners-Lee, developer of the World Wide Web and current MIT Professor, spoke at his funeral.

As we’ve seen, Robert Swartz’ eulogy spoke out strongly against how his son was treated by the Justice Department. Finding a cause for a suicide is a touchy subject—as is contradicting a grieving father. Rather, I think it is fair to say Swartz’ intentions were noble—and let it be said, personally agreeable in my view—though certainly illegal in how we frame information ownership at this time.

Robert Swartz’ anger towards MIT is indeed interesting, for the institution has made strides to offer its teaching tools online for free. They also refused to support a plea deal that would have allowed Swartz to escape prison time.

Speculation aside, all that can be said is that a gifted young man is dead. Online communities are in mourning, even challenging the Westboro Baptist Church when they threatened to protest Swartz’ funeral.

We have many questions to ask ourselves in the wake of this loss. What is the role of the Internet? Who can own what information? How do old models of business adapt to the online paradigm? What should not be monetized? What will be left to profit from?

Here are some words to chew on while you look for some answers:

“As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion.”
—U.S. Judge Stewart Dalzell, Communications Decency Act panel (1996)

Bitted and Spaced,

Andrew Brennan
—Assistant News Editor

Maerin »

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