A Sad Time for Internet Freedom Fighters: Aaron Swartz Takes his Life in the Face of the U.S. Justice Machine

Posted: January 13, 2013 by Rog Tallbloke in government, Legal, media, Philosophy, Politics

The Grauniad has this article on freedom of information activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life on Friday – RIP Aaron:

Aaron-Swartz

Aaron Swartz – Internet Activist
November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013

The family of celebrated internet activist Aaron Swartz has accused prosecutors and MIT officials of being complicit in his death, blaming the apparent suicide on the pursuit of a young man over “an alleged crime that had no victims”.

In a statement released late Saturday, Swartz’s parents, Robert and Susan, siblings Noah and Ben and partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said the Redditt builder’s demise was not just a “personal tragedy” but “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”.

They also attacked the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for not supporting the internet activist in his legal battles and refusing to stand up for “its own community’s most cherished principles”.

The comments came a day after the 26-year-old killed himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday night.

A committed advocate for the freedom of information over the internet, Swartz had been facing a trial over allegations of hacking related to the downloading of millions of documents from the online research group JSTOR. Swartz pleaded not guilty last year; if convicted, he could have faced a lengthy prison term.

Full article here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/jan/13/aaron-swartz-family-mit-government

Comments
  1. Harold Ambler says:

    This is a sad event. I would point to mental illness as the cause of suicide, in all but a few extraordinary instances. Was this this one of those circumstances? Possibly.

    It seems no less likely to me, though, that mental illness, unsuccessfully treated, was the cause of Swartz’s demise.

  2. tallbloke says:

    Hi Harold,
    The article quotes one of Aaron’s friends as saying he had suffered depression in the past. I doubt the impending weight of the U.S. Justice system was much of a help.

  3. Andrew says:

    One person’s freedom is another person’s theft. If I steal your car, it’s certainly freedom for me – but less so for you. Aaron had set himself the task of destroying a commercial business, JSTOR, which trades property rights.

    This is not a company to admire, particularly, nor is academic publishing a healthy market. But one of the few roles the state legitimately performs is a defence of property rights – and the law requires it do so fairly, not run a beauty contest for each transgression. It is tragic that rather than engaging in positive reform of academic publishing, Aaron chose to steal property to make a grand gesture. He had many personal problems (to which his friends have alluded) but the ideology of theft as “freedom fighting” can’t be ignored. It was ultimately a pointless gesture.

  4. tallbloke says:

    Andrew, thanks for stopping by here.
    It’s true that he broke the law, and true he had other problems. I don’t think the prospective punishment fitted the crime. Everyone carries their own banner to fight under, ad decides when to unfurl it. I stopped battling directly with the riot police after the Poll Tax debacle in Trafalgar Square.

    Though not everyone who believes knowledge should be available to all would condone Aaron’s methods, I think we can all doff our caps to him in his passing. He did what he believed was the right thing to do, and was true to himself. He thought of himself as an internet freedom fighter, so I give him homage with my post title.

  5. ntesdorf says:

    What a tragedy. He is yet another victim of resurgent the latent Fascist urges in Society. At Jo Nova, Mr. Szulc is the somewhat lesser but still tragic victim of Eco Fascism in Western Australia.

    http://joannenova.com.au/2013/01/in-australia-if-you-try-to-clear-a-firebreak-on-your-land-you-could-go-to-gaol/

  6. Joe's World {Progressive Evolution} says:

    TB,

    United States Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) Review and Comment System. This site provides an interface for users to access USGCRP-related documents available for public review.
    http://review.globalchange.gov/
    THIS SITE WILL BECOME AVAILABLE ON MONDAY JAN 14, 2013 AT 9 AM.

  7. martin cohen says:

    Yes, it is a tragic waste of a human life.

    I’m sure hand wringing will follow on all sides. But Tallbloke is right to post this, copyright is very political. I’m an author and I live off my royalties. At the moment, most of my books are on numerous sites to download for free! And that’s fine by me. I don’t lose any real readers, and if I did, well, why is that much different from someone lending their book to a friend? In both cases I lose a ‘potential sale’ (that’s the JSTOR/ MIT justification for hounding him) but only the former case is illegal.

    With authors, and with music, there is the ‘alternative’ approach possible, which is that people who illicitly circulate your work are at the same time performing a service – they are advertising you.

    JSTOR is parasitic on academics, and now it certainly also has blood on its hands, having hounded this idealistic young man to his death.

  8. tallbloke says:

    Thanks Martin, I share your sentiments. I wonder what proportion of the research JSTOR have on sale was paid for by the public, including behests from alumni. Maybe those who leave legacies for research should make free public availability a condition of their donations.

  9. Andrew says:

    It’s a tragic waste because Aaron genuinely believed that destroying JSTOR’s business was a grand gesture that would bring the system falling down. It was a strange choice, since JSTOR was originally founded by Foundation money and until recently, was a non-profit.

    Property rights and markets are the _least bad_ mechanism we have yet devised for ensuring inventors and creators are rewarded. Strong law keeps participants honest. The academic publishing business would not exist if the creators of the material did not wish to be rewarded, and in time The Open Access model may succeed if enough academics join; academic publishing is ripe for disruption. A healthy market would see much more competition for JSTOR.

    But the alternative to property rights, collectivisation and regulation, is not attractive. Rest assured, our bureaucrats are busy collectivising your property, on your behalf, as I write:
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/07/02/govt_copyright_white_paper/

    Our intelligentsia (sic) has had 15 years to devise something that serves creators and the public better than markets based on property rights – but it has failed to do so. Instead, it promotes the campus ideology that IP “isn’t really property” and that theft isn’t really harmful. It blows raspberrie instead. This was the intellectual environment in which Aaron came of age. It’s is a piece of intellectual self-indulgence that only academics can get away with; I hope it ends with Aaron’s death.

    Anyway. Keep up the good work on this great blog, Rog.

  10. tallbloke says:

    Andrew: There are valid (and conflicting) points on both sides of this. I don’t accept that Aaron’s actions were in any danger of ‘Detroying JSTOR’s business’ because they get plenty of institutional access deals from organisations which woudn’t entertain ‘illicit’ means of access. So the main effect of Aaron’s actions was enabling ordinary folk who don’t have $30 a pop for journal articles to better their education. Permitting them to see research they’ve already paid for once in a lot of cases.

    The letter of the law is one thing, natural justice another.

    Robin Hood was a popular bloke (with the populace) by all accounts

  11. Andrew says:

    Like you I am not a fan of the academic publishing market – and there are many grown-up ways of reforming it. For example, if academics move to Open Access there will be no market and no JStor, the supply of new papers into a commercial system would dry up. Many are already doing so.

    Aaron had identified JStor as “evil” and his actions if fulfilled would have had the consequence of destroying the business, since, as you say, the $30 access fee would no longer be paid.

    The danger of taking a relativist approach, rather than approaching the issue from first principles, is that it allows me to justify stealing your car and posing as Robin Hood too. What’s wrong with allowing “ordinary folk” to have a ride in your car, Roger? Can’t you see the “greater good” is being served? :)

    In fact our system already has the flexibility of allowing citizens to decide on each case on merits – in the courts. What you’re proposing repeals basic property law – anyone can justify anything at any time, by posing as Robin Hood.

  12. tallbloke says:

    Hi Andrew
    OK, well, I can see both sides of this. You don’t seem to be able to see that even if a lot of ordinary individuals used Aaron’s hack, the vast number of institutions which have bulk access deals with JSTOR wouldn’t, and so there is no way their ‘business would have been destroyed’.

    By the way, I have a van, and I always pick up hitch-hikers. If you want to steal it, you’ll have to get past my security measures, which have loud barks and big teeth. :)

  13. tallbloke says:

    More detail on the nature of the ‘hack’ in this article
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/willardfoxton2/100008662/aaron-swartz-was-a-victim-of-the-hacker-code-of-disruption-of-pushing-things-too-far/

    This does put a different complexion on the case for me. Hooking up a hard drive direct to MIT’s server makes the issue pretty clear. I still think the prosecution was heavy handed though.

    The brighter note is MIT’s stated intention to make papers available to alumni. I hope that’s worldwide.