Aaron Swartz: The Cost of Free Information

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On Friday, web pioneer and open information advocate Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26. A “boy genius” developer, Aaron created the RSS Web feed system when he was just 14 years old, and he later helped create Creative Commons and the front page of the Internet — Reddit.com.

He strongly believed in free information — more universal access to knowledge — and helped lead the fight against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). When SOPA was defeated last January through online grassroots activism, Aaron warned: “[SOPA] will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. Next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.” He was committed to social justice and protecting the Internet from privatization, but as with the fight for any social cause, it wasn’t easy.

At time of his death Aaron was in serious legal trouble. He faced an incredible 35 years in federal prison for allegedly hacking the MIT computer system to gain access to millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR (a subscription-only service for literary and academic journals that later dropped all charges) with the intent to make them public.

What we’re talking about is overzealous, disproportionate and selective prosecution of a public figure, precisely because Aaron lived part of his life in the public eye. Similar to the irrational calls for Piers Morgan to be deported because of his opinions on the Second Amendment, this uncannily resembles cases of “we don’t like what you said so we’ll find a way to punish you.” It is especially troubling in the Swartz case because the irrational persecution came from government officials and not simply private citizens.

As Think Progress notes, if Swartz had lived to be convicted of the charges against him, he would have faced a harsher punishment than what most killers, bank robbers, child pornographers, and terrorist sympathizers get.

Whatever one thinks of Swartz’s actions, which were likely illegal and probably should be illegal, it is difficult to justify treating him as if he were a more dangerous criminal than someone who flies into a rage and kills their own brother.

What was odd about Aaron’s situation however, even within this context, is that it was MIT and not JSTOR that chose to pursue Swartz’s punishment. The problem with this is primarily the fact that MIT receives millions of dollars of government funding for research intended to add to the world’s knowledge. As a result, the university should be trying to make more public information free, not hound and harass those who are working towards this goal — a goal that educational institutions especially should embrace.

Prior to the MIT charges, Swartz was under investigation by the FBI for liberating federal judicial documents from PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records. Aaron wrote a program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts — roughly 20 percent of the entire database. PACER had been charging 8 cents per page for information that Carl Malamud, Founder of public.resource.org, had also long argued should be free.

The government then used these acts to paint Swartz as a thief: “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement when Swartz was charged.

And it wasn’t just Aaron’s actions, but the ardent communication of his commitment to liberate information, and his first amendment right to say so, that seemed to fuel the investigation against him. Prosecutors used Swartz’s own words for effect in their filing:

In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which Swartz actively participated in drafting and had posted on one of his websites, Swartz advocated ‘tak[ing] information, wherever it is stored, mak[ing] our copies and shar[ing] them with the world.’

Portraying Aaron as a thief, and undercutting his first amendment rights, criminalizes “hacktivism” when there is obvious difference between data theft for profit versus a more benign hack like Swartz’s and by doing so, the government pushed Aaron to his limits.

On Saturday, Swartz’s family released a statement, blaming this overzealous prosecution for driving Aaron into a deeper depression:

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 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.

Harvard University Law School Professor and close friend, Lawrence Lessig, agrees that labelling Aaron as a “felon” and the endless prosecutorial bullying played a role in his death. “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.”

Aaron was brilliant, and funny. 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.

Monday morning the government filed one last motion in United States of America v. Aaron Swartz – dismissing the case following Aaron’s tragic death.

Thinking critically about how information is, and should be, governed and what a truly open Internet looks like, what can we make of Aaron’s untimely death?

Friends, supporters, bloggers, hackers and activists have come together, weighing in on this  important question as the outpour of grief continues to spread through the web.

On Sunday evening, hackers started the #OpAaronSwartz campaign by shutting down the MIT and Department of Justice websites “using a distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attack, in which people flood a site with data requests until it collapses from the load”, as the New York Times explains.

Academics are paying tribute in their own way too, posting links on Twitter to copyright-protected articles with the hashtag #pdftribute. As of this morning, the commemorative “PDF Tribute” website includes more than 2,000 links to academic and research articles.

This is all in the spirit of free access to information — something Aaron championed long before SOPA/PIPA even came into existence.

Aaron shouldn’t just be remembered as a hacker or as an Internet activist, but also as a powerful political thinker who cared deeply about justice. Writer Matt Stoller, who worked with Aaron in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office in D.C in 2009, sheds some light on Swartz:

What I respected about Aaron is that he burned with a desire for justice, but also felt a profound desire to understand the system he was attempting to reorganize. He didn’t throw up his hands lazily and curse at corruption, he spent enormous amounts of time and energy learning about and working the political system. From founding Reddit, to fighting the Fed. That was Aaron.

As the Washington Post eloquently put it, if there is a silver lining to this story, “it’s that the outpouring of support after Swartz’s death may make it easier for other hacktivist heroes to change society in the future.”

As a society, we must realize that coding and programming is more than a path to creating the next big social media company or game on the Internet. They are tools, as the online memorial to Swartz points out, that can be used to make the Internet and the world a “fairer, better place.

My friend, Tim Stanley, Founder of Justia, reminded me to consider the dangerous precedent that Aaron’s act of taking his own life might set for future activists. This post is sympathetic to Aaron, the issues that he cared about and redress of the real crime here: prosecutorial zeal. But, let’s hope for no more acts of desperation, on anyone’s part, in the name of Internet freedom.

Is Aaron Swartz really a felon for opening channels of information with the sole intent of making documents freely available? His goal was never to make money or to become a hero, just to make a point about what is supposed to be the ultimate platform of free expression. He explained his views in his  Manifesto on Open Access. Words and ideas should be enough to bring change and understanding in a literate and rational world.

To quote the Post again:

Aaron’s death needs to become a rallying point for those who believe in online free speech, in the free culture movement, and the ability of the Internet to create change in the power corridors of Washington, D.C.

About Charley Moore

Charley is the Publisher of Article 3, as well as Founder and CEO of Rocket Lawyer Incorporated. Prior to founding Rocket Lawyer, Charley advised early stage companies, large enterprises and their investors on strategic partnering and corporate development strategy. Charley has been at the forefront of Internet corporate development since beginning his career as an attorney at Venture Law Group in Menlo Park, California in 1996. He represented Yahoo! (IPO), WebTV Networks (acquired by Microsoft) and Cerent Corporation (acquired by Cisco Systems) at critical early stages of their success and was the founder of Onstation Corporation. Charley graduated from the United States Naval Academy (BS), San Francisco State University (MS) and the University of California at Berkeley (Juris Doctorate). He served as a U.S. Naval officer and is a Gulf War veteran.

About Sona Makker

Sona is a first-year law student studying technology law at Santa Clara University. She’s an advocate for online privacy, digital rights, and public access to the public domain. If she’s not arguing with her siblings over whether This American Life is better than Radiolab, you’ll probably find her whipping up vegetarian dishes, or attempting to do a headstand in yoga class.
Posted in: Charley Moore, Constitutional, Criminal, Culture, Internet, Law