Aaron Swartz, In Rememberance, and The Future

(TFC) – Hello Aaron. Wherever you are, if you can hear us, thank you.

Aaron Swartz, a young and ingenious programmer and creator, as well as a passionate activist who believed that information was a currency that no one should be deprived of it. As a teenager, he had co-created RSS and Reddit. He also became a tireless and endearing advocate for a number of connectivity and access related causes, he co-wrote the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, which called for activists to “liberate” information locked up by corporations and publishers. Demand Progress was also co-founded by Swartz, an online advocacy group. He led a brilliant and short life, contributed such great acts of service for the public and has changed the world. Reshaping the Internet, questioning our understanding and assumptions of intellectual property, and creating many of the tools we use in our daily online lives. On January 11,2017 it will be four years since he took his own life. He was 26.

Swartz had been an extremely effective organizer, and a fierce proponent of the open access movement. He viewed big money, both private and corporate, as the corrupting influence on institutions and centralization of power structures. The US government introduced its SOPA Bill on October 26, 2011. Essentially an “anti-piracy” bill which would have given content owners (read studios and publishing houses) extraordinary powers to shut down sites that they would have copyright claims against – these actions would be enabled without a single court appearance. Demand Progress launched the campaign to fight the SOPA bill. Garnering huge support, a coordinated protest and public education campaign was designed and implemented. Scores of Internet websites participated in the formal protest, temporarily closing and shutting down their sites or redirecting users to a message opposing the legislation. The blackout protest against SOPA, also with physical protests in major cities, was a massive success and the bill failed.

Swartz had been arrested for hacking into MITs library and downloading material from JSTOR, a deep digital subscription database of academic articles, poised behind a paywall. He saw this a public resource, this library which was largely amassed by public education funds, should be open and free for public use – a principle of freedom of information. He discovered a way to download the library using a computer hidden in a closet at MIT. It is unclear what he actually intended to use the database for. Arrested in 2011, and pursued relentlessly by US authorities and facing a potential jail sentence of 35 years and a fine of $1m, he hanged himself January 11, 2013.

Even sadder than the death of such an extraordinary young man was that zero harm had actually occurred, to either MIT or JSTOR. No physical harm occurred and no financial impact was felt by JSTOR. In fact they [JSTOR] did not even press charges, more embarrassing than anything. Yet Swartz was hunted ferociously and one assessment for the extreme attack on him was that it was mostly because of a federal prosecutor seeking attention and notoriety. The federal government was unrelenting in its quest for a severe punishment; it had even declined formally a deal that would have kept Swartz out of jail. They were unwilling to compromise on jail time. When viewed through the conventional authoritarian capitalist model, it makes sense. Protect the state and protect the mechanisms of control. Swartz’s story is tragic; that a young sharp and creative mind should be so ruthlessly prosecuted – this is surely beyond insanity. Swartz was to be made an example of.

Swartz committed the grievous sin of acting against profitable enterprise as well as exercising dissent against the state – mostly the same thing. When these acts occur, the state’s response has always been heavy-handed and disproportionate.

What shouldn’t be lost on us though is Swartz’s sacrifice and what an important and resonating icon he is. In the view of dissent against authoritarian rule and oppressive copyright and “anti-piracy” policies, it’s clear how extreme and vigorous government and corporate forces will go to protect their interests, the role citizens must play to work against those centralized elite interests, and endeavor to hold freedom of information for everyone.

Daniel J. Sieradski, Flickr, Creative Commons

They are not impenetrable though, and with organizing awareness and education campaigns on the issues that face us – public pressure and protest has, and continues to have, a significant impact in the way of progress. This shouldn’t be forgotten. Moreover Swartz’s death shines the light on access to information and the infringement of copyright control. The importance of enabling a way for citizens to access information easily, cost effective, and fairly, through not only the Internet, but libraries, and educational entities like schools and universities. Providing, what Swartz moved so passionately to do, the ability to make information available. Where public educational institutions relied on and received public taxpayer funds to complete research and publish educational and scientific findings, that that information should be available to the open public openly and freely. This way, more people can benefit, which ultimately means we all benefit.

What is a significant difference regarding dissent between Obama and Trump is Obama’s willingness to entertain dissent? When hecklers and protesters disrupt his speeches he has, to his credit, offered to listen or respond in kind or to calm crowd reactions. Trump, has acted in a polar opposite. Advocating violence on protesters and activists, inciting emotional and hate filled rhetoric. Examples of this nature show the importance of a strengthened unified protest base and an open and free Internet and access to information. To ensure the fight for citizen rights and freedoms and to guard against what appears to be, a most likely impending assault on these citizens rights; looking to past successes and finding important causes to rally around is important in building a focus base of opposition to corporate tyranny and an ability to organize effectively.

Work has continued on the copyright front, with the US moving away from the TPP, which was viewed (correctly in my opinion), as a trade agreement that encompassed much more dominant methods of corporate control and domination of intellectual property rights. Dr. Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa. He holds the Canada research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law and is a syndicated columnist on technology and law issues with his regular column appearing in the Toronto Star, the Hill Times and the Tyee. He has written extensively on these related subjects, I reached him via email and he had this to say about Swartz. “I met Aaron several times and was always amazed at his vision and commitment to principles such as open access and public engagement on digital rights. His tragic death was an enormous loss but his memory – the fights over SOPA and open access in particular – unquestionably resonate today and provide inspiration for future battles over digital rights.”

In an era of increased state and corporate oppression and mania, increased state security and surveillance, Aaron’s sacrifice mustn’t be forgotten. The public battle for open access has not and will not be lessened. Where outgoing President Obama has shown the world much about how a corporate friendly administration works so effectively to prosecute and punish dissidents and whistleblowers, we must work even harder to thwart Donald Trump’s almost certain attempts to protect and centralize his interests and policies that he and his administration will no doubt work to strengthen and support – highly likely by attempting to reduce open access and thwarting journalist efforts for transparency. We will be faced with challenges and obstacles that threaten net neutrality and Internet freedom, so what gift Aaron has given us, especially in regards to his immense civil valor, must be remembered and must be continued.