The Internet is an amazing technology that allows us to reach higher levels of communication and knowledge. A few months before becoming an amateur blogger, I had read a book called “The Googlization of Everything (and why we should worry)”(1) calling attention to the fact that “the Internet has been remarkably effective as a medium for distributing materials cheap and quickly and – to a lesser extent – fostering serious discussion and profound creativity. It’s only common sense that we should support policies meant to foster innovation and the cheap, easy acquisition of knowledge. What that infrastructure should look like, however, and how we can achieve it, are questions we need to consider very seriously”
When I read about the life, and the death, of Aaron Swartz, I learned the value of the contributions of this young man. “…Cyber activist, computer programmer, social justice activist and writer…At the age of 14, he co-developed the Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, web protocol, the key component of much of the web’s entire publishing infrastructure. By the time he was 19, he had co-founded a company that would merge with Reddit, now one of the world’s most popular sites. He also helped develop the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and built the online architecture for the Open Library. Aaron Swartz committed suicide on Friday. He hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.”
“His death occurred just weeks before he was to go on trial for using computers at MIT — that’s the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors moved the case forward. Aaron Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. When the case first came to light, the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said, quote, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
In a statement, Swartz’s family criticized federal prosecutors pursuing the case against him. They said, “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.” On Sunday, MIT President Rafael Reif said the university will conduct an internal investigation into the school’s role in Swartz’s death.
Aaron Swartz was a longtime champion of an open Internet. Last year, he helped organize a grassroots movement to defeat a House bill called SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and a Senate bill called PIPA, the PROTECT IP Act. During a speech he delivered last May in Washington D.C., he explained the challenges he saw the Internet facing.
There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?” (2)
Did the Government Hound an Internet Freedom Fighter to His Death?
This is how radio interviewer Ian Master titled the conversation with Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard regarding the suicide of Aaron Swartz. Professor Lessig was “a friend a mentor of the 26 year old Internet entrepreneur and advocate for the electronic commons Aaron Swartz, who appears to have been hounded to his death by over-zealous government prosecutors unable to distinguish between malicious hackers and defenders of free speech and freedom of information.” (3)
(1) Author: Siva Vaidhyanathan, Professor of Media Studies and Law at the University of Virginia.
(2) Amy Goodman, Democracy Now, Pacifica radio program.
(3) Ian Masters, Background Briefing, Pacifica radio program.