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The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz

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  • Romi Elnagar
    The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz The internet freedom activist committed suicide on Friday at age 26, but his life was driven by courage and passion * *
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 13, 2013
      The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz
      The internet freedom activist committed suicide on Friday at age 26, but his life was driven by courage and passion

      * * Glenn Greenwald
      * guardian.co.uk, Saturday 12 January 2013 16.25 EST

      The internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here in January 2009, has died at the age of 26. Photograph: Michael Francis Mcelroy/AP
      (updated below)

      Aaron Swartz, the computer programmer and internet freedom activist, committed suicide on Friday in New York at the age of 26. As the incredibly moving remembrances from his friends such as Cory Doctorow and Larry Lessig attest, he was unquestionably brilliant but also - like most everyone - a complex human being plagued by demons and flaws. For many reasons, I
      don't believe in whitewashing someone's life or beatifying them upon
      death. But, to me, much of Swartz's tragically short life was filled
      with acts that are genuinely and, in the most literal and noble sense,
      heroic. I think that's really worth thinking about today.
      At the
      age of 14, Swartz played a key role in developing the RSS software that
      is still widely used to enable people to manage what they read on the
      internet. As a teenager, he also played a vital role in the creation of
      Reddit, the wildly popular social networking news site. When Conde Nast
      purchased Reddit, Swartz received a substantial sum of money at a very
      young age. He became something of a legend in the internet and
      programming world before he was 18. His path to internet mogul status
      and the great riches it entails was clear, easy and virtually
      guaranteed: a path which so many other young internet entrepreneurs have found irresistible, monomaniacally devoting themselves to making more
      and more money long after they have more than they could ever hope to
      But rather obviously, Swartz had little interest in
      devoting his life to his own material enrichment, despite how easy it
      would have been for him. As Lessig wrote: "Aaron had literally done
      nothing in his life 'to make money' . . . Aaron was always and only
      working for (at least his conception of) the public good."
      Specifically, he committed himself to the causes in which he so passionately
      believed: internet freedom, civil liberties, making information and
      knowledge as available as possible. Here he is in his May, 2012 keynote address at the Freedom To Connect conference discussing the role he played in stopping SOPA, the movie-industry-demanded legislation that would have vested the government with dangerous censorship powers over the internet.
      Critically, Swartz didn't commit himself to these causes merely by talking about
      them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and
      subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That's what
      makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.
      In 2008, Swartz targeted Pacer, the online service that provides access to court documents for a
      per-page fee. What offended Swartz and others was that people were
      forced to pay for access to public court documents that were created at
      public expense. Along with a friend, Swartz created a program to
      download millions of those documents and then, as Doctorow wrote, "spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into
      the public domain." For that act of civil disobedience, he was
      investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.
      But in July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly targeting JSTOR, the online publishing company that
      digitizes and distributes scholarly articles written by academics and
      then sells them, often at a high price, to subscribers. As Maria Bustillos detailed, none of the money goes to the actual writers (usually professors) who
      wrote the scholarly articles - they are usually not paid for writing
      them - but instead goes to the publishers.
      This system offended
      Swartz (and many other free-data activists) for two reasons: it charged
      large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the
      authors, and worse, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied
      access to the scholarship produced by America's colleges and
      universities. The indictment filed against Swartz alleged that he used
      his access as a Harvard fellow to the JSTOR system to download millions
      of articles with the intent to distribute them online for free; when he
      was detected and his access was cut off, the indictment claims he then
      trespassed into an MIT computer-wiring closet in order to physically
      download the data directly onto his laptop.
      Swartz never
      distributed any of these downloaded articles. He never intended to
      profit even a single penny from anything he did, and never did profit in any way. He had every right to download the articles as an authorized
      JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's "terms of
      service" by making the articles available to the public. Once arrested,
      he returned all copies of everything he downloaded and vowed not to use
      them. JSTOR told federal prosecutors that it had no intent to see him
      prosecuted, though MIT remained ambiguous about its wishes.
      But federal prosecutors ignored the wishes of the alleged "victims". Led by a federal prosecutor in Boston notorious for her overzealous prosecutions, the DOJ threw the book at
      him, charging Swartz with multiple felonies which carried a total
      sentence of several decades in prison and $1 million in fines.
      Swartz's trial on these criminal charges was scheduled to begin in two months.
      He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma
      and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where "his wealth [was] bled dry,
      yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to
      fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court
      To say that the DOJ's treatment of Swartz was excessive and vindictive is an extreme understatement. When I wrote about Swartz's plight last August, I wrote that he was "being prosecuted by the DOJ with obscene over-zealousness". Timothy Lee wrote the definitive article in 2011 explaining why, even if all the allegations in the indictment are true, the only real crime committed by Swartz was basic trespassing, for
      which people are punished, at most, with 30 days in jail and a $100
      fine, about which Lee wrote: "That seems about right: if he's going to
      serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years."
      Nobody knows for sure why federal prosecutors decided to pursue Swartz so
      vindictively, as though he had committed some sort of major crime that
      deserved many years in prison and financial ruin. Some theorized that the DOJ hated him for his serial activism and civil disobedience.
      Others speculated that, as Doctorow put it, "the feds were chasing down
      all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in
      the hopes of turning one of them."
      I believe it has more to do with what I told the New York Times' Noam Cohen for an article he wrote on Swartz's case. Swartz's activism, I argued, was waged as part of one of the most vigorously contested battles - namely, the war over how the internet is used and who controls the information that flows on it -
      and that was his real crime in the eyes of the US government:
      challenging its authority and those of corporate factions to maintain a
      stranglehold on that information. In that above-referenced speech on
      SOPA, Swartz discussed the grave dangers to internet freedom and free
      expression and assembly posed by the government's efforts to control the internet with expansive interpretations of copyright law and other
      weapons to limit access to information.
      That's a major part of why I consider him heroic. He wasn't merely sacrificing himself for a
      cause. It was a cause of supreme importance to people and movements
      around the world - internet freedom - and he did it by knowingly
      confronting the most powerful state and corporate factions because he
      concluded that was the only way to achieve these ends.
      Suicide is
      an incredibly complicated phenomenon. I didn't know Swartz nearly well
      enough even to form an opinion about what drove him to do this; I had a
      handful of exchanges with him online in which we said nice things about
      each other's work and I truly admired him. I'm sure even his closest
      friends and family are struggling to understand exactly what caused him
      to defy his will to live by taking his own life.
      But, despite his public and very sad writings about battling depression, it only stands to reason that a looming
      criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades played some
      role in this; even if it didn't, this persecution by the DOJ is an
      outrage and an offense against all things decent, for the reasons Lessig wrote today:
      "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.
      >"A kid genius. A soul, a
      conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million
      times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the
      edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't
      deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
      >"For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial
      crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought
      to 'justice' never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be
      labeled 'felons'."
      Whatever else is true, Swartz was destroyed by a "justice" system that fully protects the most egregious
      criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation's most
      powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and
      harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge
      Swartz knew all of this. But he forged ahead anyway. He
      could have easily opted for a life of great personal wealth, status,
      prestige and comfort. He chose instead to fight - selflessly, with
      conviction and purpose, and at great risk to himself - for noble causes
      to which he was passionately devoted. That, to me, isn't an example of
      heroism; it's the embodiment of it, its purest expression. It's the
      attribute our country has been most lacking.
      I always found it
      genuinely inspiring to watch Swartz exude this courage and commitment at such a young age. His death had better prompt some serious examination
      of the DOJ's behavior - both in his case and its warped administration
      of justice generally. But his death will also hopefully strengthen the
      inspirational effects of thinking about and understanding the
      extraordinary acts he undertook in his short life.
      From the official statement of Swartz's family:
      "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.
      Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US 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.
      Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own
      community's most cherished principles."
      This sort of
      unrestrained prosecutorial abuse is, unfortunately, far from uncommon.
      It usually destroys people without attention or notice. Let's hope - and work to ensure that - the attention generated by Swartz's case prompts
      some movement toward accountability and reform.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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