Profiles in Concern: Aaron Swartz

"There is no comprehensive list of his good works," wrote Micah Sifry, the Editorial Director over at Tech President. "Aaron had literally done nothing in his life 'to make money,'" wrote friend, mentor, and Harvard Law Prefessor Larry Lessig. "[He] was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good." 

There is no disputing Aaron Swartz was a genius. At 14, he co-authored RSS 1.0--one of the most widely used scripts on the internet. In the ensuing decade, he helped develop Creative Commons, OpenLibrary.org, and Rootstrikers, and founded Demand Progress. It has been said that he made gifts of websites to his friends like most of us might bake a batch of cookies. And of course, he is best known as the founder of Reddit . All this before he was 26. 

How tragic it was, and how great a loss for concerned citizens everywhere, that Aaron Swartz decided to take his own life. In what has been called,"gross prosecutorial overreach," by his family, as well as many others, Aaron was facing 13 felony counts from federal prosecutors for illegally downloading a large number of academic journal articles from JSTOR--articles that are in many cases, including Aaron's case since he was accessing them through MIT, available for free. For its part, JSTOR declined to file charges against him, and urged the Justice Department to do the same. The Justice Department however elected to pursue charges that carried a punishment which far exceeded any reasonable notion of proportionality to his crime, which after all, did not harm anyone (other than unintentionally crashing the JSTOR and MIT servers for a few hours), and was clearly not undertaken for means of personal profit. 

In response to his death, many of called for an investigation into the DoJ office responsible for his case, and Anonymous hacked both the MIT and DoJ websites, and put up this message as a tribute to Aaron: 

A brief message from Anonymous.

Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support.

Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining. Aaron's act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.

Our wishes:

We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.

We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.

We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.

We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.

For in the end, we will not be judged according to what we give, but according to what we keep to ourselves.

Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.

 

Indeed, read in peace concerned citizen. Read in peace.