What activist Aaron Swartz showed us

A computer nerd is an unlikely protagonist but changing times create different heroes, writes Barbara Amiel

by Barbara Amiel

Michael Francis McElroy/ZUMA/KEYSTONE PRESS

Aaron Swartz knotted his belt and hanged himself in his New York apartment last week. He was 26 years old, a celebrity among Internet hackers, an activist for free online access. He suffered from depression. He was also in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of Justice, charged with 13 felonies for accessing Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers to download nearly five million files from academic journals as part of his drive to make all information on the web free.

Suicide by hanging is unambiguous. One can’t hang by accident as in overdosing medication. Hanging is not a cry for help. The belt must be tied so that with gravity you will break your neck or alternately suffocate in a few awful minutes. Once the noose is in position, there is a brief moment during which its wearer must make the decision to kick off. I know more than I would prefer about depression and I have a passing acquaintance with that moment before jumping. Even before he made the decision, Aaron had left anything resembling this world for a cage of desperation that beggars description.

Swartz, a school dropout, was the founder of the online group Demand Progress, instrumental in defeating (or at the very least postponing) Congress’s Internet anti-piracy legislation last year. The word “copyright” rolls deprecatingly out of his mouth in now-macabre videos of him on the web. His speech cadences, so like the ones in movies about preppies, evidence his link with Harvard (he was a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics) which gave him legitimate use of MIT computers.

A lot of what he said so elegantly was youthful rubbish. He saw a conspiratorial and corrupt world run by multinational organizations and government at the cost of the First Amendment. He and fellow activists banged on about government censorship of the Internet and while not all of it was a lie it was a half-truth. They seemed not to understand that copyright makes content—it’s the lifeblood of a creative and informative web and not just the blunt tool of media companies or an instrument of greed. Without copyright, no writer or creator could earn a living.

Aaron had been on the run for some time. In 2008 he had written a program that put some 20 million legal documents online for free rather than the 10 cents per page the government charges through its Public Access to Court Electronic Records system. The FBI investigated but no charges were laid. The material Swartz allegedly downloaded illegally from MIT—articles from the subscription service Jstor—was already partially free. Jstor’s counsel, former Manhattan federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, had asked the lead prosecutor in the case against Swartz to drop the charges. “Stealing is stealing” was the answer. Trial was set for this April.

Conviction could have got sentences up to 35 years and huge fines though, since prosecutors throw anything at a defendant on the theory that the jury will give them something in return, he might have got a far lower sentence. Aaron was said to be worried about the mounting cost of lawyers. When the FBI first came sniffing around in 2009 he was cocky and mocked their stilted language in reports he obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. By 2012 he was bearing the full weight of a federal investigation and cracking under the burden.

A deal was said to have been offered if he would plead guilty to all 13 felonies. He would not. He was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a controversial law in an evolving field. Swartz’s grief-stricken family blamed his death on “prosecutorial overreach.” But even good friend Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig had misgivings about Swartz’s methods, which if not illegal were, he felt, unethical.

How are we to deal with this emerging group of young activists/idealists who, refusing to recognize certain kinds of property, steal it—even if not for profit? Without sanctions, you create a segment of society beyond the rule of law. Threatening with a vague ill-defined law in the hands of headline-seeking prosecutors leads only to abuses. Because he may have crossed the yellow line, the Swartz case is the wrong one to lift the rock on the rotting world of U.S. justice. Still that may be its singular importance. Everyone in Britain knew for years that the tabloid press was diseased but no move was made until a case involving a murdered young girl created a public uproar. Similarly, perhaps the suicide of a brilliant, unstable youth—even though middle-class and white—might force a look at prosecutorial tactics in the United States.

Had Swartz’s life been ruined in the usual way by a few years imprisonment only his subculture would have noticed. But the grisly suicide of a 26-year-old begs for tempered justice and decency. Look closer and you will see prisons as bleak as Piranesi’s etchings, overflowing with (largely) minority non-violent prisoners, disenfranchised, subject to uneducated and often callous guards, uncared for by a President of their own race, while their families live in impoverished misery.

In modern times excessive imprisonment and injustice have been the rich material of great writers—Zola, Hugo, Kafka, Dickens and Dreiser. A computer nerd is an unlikely protagonist but changing times create different heroes. The canvas awaits. As it is, all I can write is that suicide by hanging was a pretty low-tech exit for so high-tech a genius as Aaron Swartz. May he rest in peace.


What activist Aaron Swartz showed us

  1. Notwithstanding our natural sympathy for his family, this piece is bilge. Swartz was far more dangerous than the thieves he would have been shacked up with in jail. He and his cohort made a sacred principle of thievery; that’s progress? Also, he was far, far more capable of mass theft than any similar larcen of an earlier era, due to the vulnerabliity of data. Finally, given that it’s almost as easy to digitally alter and distort content (and then float it as a hoax) as it is to steal it in the first place, Swartz was umpteen times more dangerous again. This was a failure of culture and child-rearing, but also a signal to take account for this stuff.

    • Pastebomb from http://falkvinge.net/2011/02/08/history-of-copyright-part-4-the-us-and-libraries/

      When the United States was founded, the concept of
      monopolies on ideas was carried to the New World and debated intensely.
      Thomas Jefferson was a fierce opponent to the monster of monopolies on
      ideas. A compromise was reached.

      Copyright didn’t originate in the United States, as we have seen. The
      idea had been there beforehand and the Founding Fathers carried the
      laws with them into their new country. The topic of monopolies on ideas,
      however, was a topic not easily settled. Jefferson wrote:

      If nature has made any one thing less susceptible
      than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking
      power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as
      long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces
      itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot
      dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one
      possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He
      who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without
      lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light
      without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to
      another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and
      improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and
      benevolently designed by nature, when she made them … incapable of
      confinement or exclusive appropriation.

      In the end, the United States Constitution was the first one to specify the reason
      for copyrights (and patents!) to be granted. It is very clear and
      straigtforward in its justification for the existence of copyright in
      United States law:

      …to promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts…

      It is particularly notable that the purpose of the monopoly was not
      for any profession to make money, neither writer nor printer nor
      distributor. Instead, the purpose is exemplary in its clarity: the only
      justification for the monopoly is if it maximizes the culture and knowledge available to society.

      Thus, copyright (in the US, and therefore predominantly today) is a balance between the public’s access to culture and the same public’s interest of having new culture created. This is tremendously important. In particular, note here that the public is the only legitimate stakeholder
      in the wording and evolution of copyright law: the monopoly holders,
      while certainly being benefactors of the monopoly, are not legitimate
      stakeholders and should have no say in its wording, just like a regiment
      town should have no say in whether that regiment is actually needed for
      national security.

      It is useful to point at the wording of the US Constitution when people falsely believe that the copyright monopoly exists so that artists can make money. It never did, not in any country.

      Meanwhile in the United Kingdom

      In the meantime in the United Kingdom, books were still quite
      expensive, mostly because of the copyright monopoly. Book collections
      were only seen in rich men’s homes, and some started benevolently to
      lend books to the common people.

      The publishers went mad about this, and lobbied Parliament to outlaw
      the reading of a book without first paying for their own copy. They
      tried to outlaw the public library before the library had even been
      invented. “Reading without paying first? That’s stealing from the authors! Taking the bread right out of their childrens’ mouths!”

      But Parliament took a different stance, seeing the positive impact of
      reading on society. The problem perceived by Parliament was not the
      self-described eternal plight of the copyright monopolists, but the
      problem that rich men in society dictated who would read and who
      wouldn’t. It seemed beneficial to society to level the playing field: to
      create public libraries, accessible to poor and rich alike.

      The copyright monopolists went absolutely ballistic when they heard about this idea. “You
      can’t let anybody read any book for free! Not a single book will be
      sold ever again! Nobody will be able to live off their writing! No
      author will write a single book ever again if you pass this law!”

      Parliament in the 1800s was much wiser than today, however, and saw
      the copyright monopolists’ tantrum for what it was. Parliament took a
      strong stance that public access to knowledge and culture had a larger
      benefit to society than the copyright monopoly, and so in 1849, the law
      instituting public libraries in the UK was passed. The first public
      library opened in 1850.

      And as we know, not a single book has been written ever since. Either
      that, or the copyright monopolists’ rant about nothing being created
      without a strong monopoly was as false then as it is when repeated

      (Note: in some European countries, authors and translators get
      some pennies for every book lent from a library. It should be strongly
      noted that this is not a compensation for an imaginary loss of income,
      as if every reduction in the monopoly required compensation, but a
      national cultural grant which happens to measure popularity and
      therefore suitability for that grant using statistics from libraries.
      Besides, the grant appeared in the early 1900s, long after libraries.)

      Meanwhile in Germany

      Germany had no copyright monopoly during this time. Several historians argue
      that this led to the rapid proliferation of knowledge that enabled
      Germany to take the industrial lead over the United Kingdom — knowledge
      could be spread cheaply and efficiently. So in a way, Germany’s
      leapfrogging of the United Kingdom proved British Parliament right: the
      national interest of access to culture and knowledge does supersede the
      monopoly interest of the publishers.

    • Another pastebomb. http://falkvinge.net/2012/06/01/if-filesharing-is-theft-then-itunes-is-extortion/

      To quote myself: “The idea that information is a form of property is a preposterous lie pushed by those who profit by means of an artificial monopoly. If information is property, I can do whatever the hell I want with information I’ve purchased – as a copy or original – and I intend to do so.”

      Don’t kid yourselves, artists, authors, and other
      creative people: charging money to access your work is morally
      reprehensible. You can argue semantics all you like, and call it
      “selling” to “customers” who “buy” your “product”. But the rest of us
      know that it’s nothing more than oppressive, tyrannical despotism.

      ! Satirical Post !
      The views expressed in this article are intentionally absurd, and not
      intended to be taken at face value. I have to say this, because this is
      the Internet.


      In the ancient world, a despotic king from a distant land might demand tribute from his conquered people
      in exchange for the “valuable” service of neither raping nor pillaging
      them. This is in contrast to the fact that normally, the conquered
      people would naturally have the right to live their lives
      rape-and-pillage-free. Similarly, when you publish a digitized
      cultural work on an online “store” such as iTunes or Amazon, you are
      demanding that people give you money in exchange for the
      “valuable” service of accessing a non-scarce, non-rivalrous, infinitely
      redistributable collection of data. These two scenarios — ancient and modern — are perfectly analogous, and are just as morally reprehensible as one another.

      Therefore, it is in no way an embellishment to call a
      creative person who charges money for digital distribution a “despot”.
      You dirty, reprehensible despots, you. There is nothing
      hyperbolic about comparing a brutally violent relic of history to the
      modern-day idiosyncrasies of MP3s and stuff.

      You despots have no regard for all of the hard-working people who
      made your creative output possible. If you’re an author, how could you
      write your novel if nobody ever invented the word “the”? Or the idea of
      paragraphs and sentences? Or the narrative and literary tropes which you
      used or self-consciously subverted (because you’re so
      postmodern)? You drew all of these things from the cultural commons, and
      the cultural commons is made up of everybody’s freely accessible,
      freely modifiable work. If everyone demanded ritual sacrifice of
      money in order to access and transform their work, then nobody would
      ever add anything to the commons ever again. What, do you want it all to just stop? Forever?

      Now, given how undeniably right I am about all of this,
      you’ve probably realized that I’m a smart enough guy to be realistic.
      And I am. I’m extremely intelligent. I have unrestricted posting rights
      on the blog of one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, so I’m obviously better than you.

      Thus, I understand human nature. I’m not saying all of this
      to try and stop anyone from being evil, black-hearted despots who demand
      monetary tribute from innocent aficionados of culture. If a
      human being can ruthlessly extort money out of someone else, they will.
      That’s just common sense, and no amount of the ever-increasing
      biological and anthropological evidence to the contrary can change that.
      But don’t ask me to like it. Don’t ask me to be your
      friend if you demand money to read your book, watch your movie, listen
      to your music, or whatever it is you do.

      Fortunately for basic human decency, I know that it’s a myth that
      demanding money for culture is a particularly easy process. For now,
      it’s a nontrivial exercise for people without access to conniving legal
      or PR teams. That’s why, despite the fact that most of the art and
      culture I enjoy is behind a paywall somewhere, I’ve still experienced a
      shitload of it with no obligation to pay. Most normal people (as opposed to petulant divas or pro-copyright lobbyists) can’t be bothered faffing around with self-aggrandizing whiny blog posts or suing their enthusiastic fans. They’d just like people to enjoy their work.

      But the grand-scheme-of-things irrelevance of all of you
      malevolent, contemptible despots does absolutely nothing to quell my
      undying rage against you, which is not petty at all. I don’t care that your despotic demands for tribute have no discernible impact on anyone’s lives at the end of the day. If you charge money to access your creative output, then you are committing a crime against humanity.

      You might say, why Zacqary, that’s a bold statement. To which I’d reply, no: it was an italic statement. This is a bold statement.

      If you want to talk about cold, hard economic realities, let’s talk.
      But don’t try to argue semantics. Don’t try to gain the moral high
      ground. No matter what you say in a semantic or moral argument about these issues, you’ll always be wrong.

  2. The article misinforms readers. The argument made is based on property right which the article refers to as in general. In the case of Aaron, the data he tried to free for everyone only generate profit for the one that control the sources not the real owners. Besides, those data are generated by public funding and should belong to the public as he and many people believe. In the case if you say for whom wants to see or download has to pay a fee to the maintenance, he did try to move those data to free hosting sites so everyone could get free access. It is sad that as a journalist, you don’t have the critical/logical ability to see the real problem. As Chris Hayes said that he was “downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.” After going through many articles about what really happened, I don’t think downloading many articles was the case since JSTOR dropped all charges and didn’t want to go along with the justice department. The prosecutors and MIT were able to go after him b/c his violating of the terms of services based on an outdated law, CFAA, that is in talk to be changed in the future.

    • This is a good point. There is a strange relationship between academia and the journals. The academics use their own research funds (often, though not always, public money) to do the work and write a research paper. The paper is then submitted, for free (or sometimes with the authors paying a fee!) to a journal, who then pawns it off to other academics to review (also for free). Part of the submission process involves a transfer of significant intellectual property rights from the authors to the journal, who then publishes the work that other academics use their research funds (often, though not always, public money) to access it.

      Academic journals are an extremely profitable business. Whether or not their contribution to improving the quality of research justifies the extra cost is a very interesting question.

  3. Hundreds of academics posted links to copyright-protected journals online in tribute to Internet activist Swartz using hashtag #pdftribute #ICYMI.

  4. Theft is a case of taking a zerosum item. Copying data is NOT theft – it is not a zerosum game. If I take your car for a drive, you are out one car. But if I duplicate your car, you are not. Property is a natural monopoly. Information is not. It is an infinite resource that can be freely duplicated or shared without fear of running out.

  5. Good you write about Aaron Swartz. I find his ability to speak fluidly when interviewed on TV, on a broad range of subjects, quite refreshing. He was indeed a smart, even very smart individual. You mention the clique (subculture) he was a member of. My comment is that this clique, which includes Wikileaks as well as hundreds more, is better developed than indicated here, and becoming more important. No criticism intended as you may well realize this.

  6. All this intelectual bullshit,the man was good down to his bones,i am not interested in hearing any crap intelectuals trying to understand him,he was a good man, a man trying to make the world a better place,thats it end of story,lets try to carry on where he left off,he was awesome and thats that.

  7. Before asserting yet again that content only exists because of copyright, try reading this press release from Neelie Kroes Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-11-777_en.htm.

    You may also want to consider the thousands of years human history in which musicians and writers have made a living before copyright law existed.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *