Why freedom of information activist Aaron Swartz mattered


On Jan. 11, 2013, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz took his own life. Everybody who uses the Internet should know who he was.

Swartz is partly responsible for things that you, as an Internet user, take for granted.

He had a hand in creating RSS, Reddit and, most famously, he fought the privacy-invading legislation Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) tabled in U.S. Congress in 2012.

Above all else, Swartz was a freedom of information activist.

Believing information important to the public should be widely available, he downloaded and published the entire U.S. Library of Congress bibliographic dataset, as well as U.S. Federal Court documents.

Both institutions charge to access these documents.

While at university, he applied the same philosophy to academic journal database JSTOR.

If the point of academic research is to advance human understanding, then why is it not available to non-academics? Why is there an exclusive monopoly on academic information?

With legal access to JSTOR through Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010, Swartz downloaded (but did not publish, or make available) over 4 million JSTOR articles.

He was legally entitled to this access, and entitled to download these articles through MIT.

On Jan. 6, 2011, he was arrested.

Shortly after, the case was taken over by the Secret Service.

JSTOR is not only on the record as agreeing with Swartz’s principles, but also declined to press charges.

For this “crime” of downloading too many free documents, Swartz found himself in the crosshairs of U.S. Federal Prosecutors, who alleged that he “stole” the information.

No less than 13 felonies were leveled against him under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, with a possible sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz fought valiantly to have the charges dropped.

On Jan. 9, 2013, Swartz’s lawyer was quoted in The Wall Street Journal as saying the prosecutor told them, “Mr. Swartz would need to plead guilty to every count, and the government would insist on prison time.”

Two days later, Swartz was found dead.

Feeling pressure from online rage at Swartz’s death, the prosecutor’s husband, an IBM executive, lashed out at his wife’s critics on Twitter, stating that they “blame others for (Swartz ’s) death and make no mention of the six-month offer.”

Indeed there was an offer for six months of jail time if Swartz plead guilty, but the mere notion that anybody should spend six months in prison for “stealing” free documents and having a criminal record as a felon is a mentality that can only be possessed by the political elite.

In the Plea Bargain Regime currently adopted against “hackers” and “leakers,” sentences are trumped-up and exaggerated; the goal is not maximum sentence and indictment on all charges, but rather pressuring to accept a plea deal in which you are convicted of guilt and spend time in jail anyway.

It would be a lucrative conviction pleasing to the established political elite in Washington, and would look wonderful on Carmen Ortiz, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, who has known Massachusetts governorship ambitions.

No citizen of a free country should live in fear for engaging in politics and at worst, engaging in minor (and harmless) civil disobedience as a form of activism.

Nor should information activism result in your becoming a target.

In death, Swartz has shone a spotlight on the corrupt state of the U.S. justice system and the abuses of the powerful prosecution team he faced.

A petition was launched - just as Swartz’s SOPA petition demanded a response from the White House - to see prosecutor Carmen Ortiz and her office investigated.

That petition was also successful.

Irony, it seems, is not without a sense of natural justice.

In Swartz’s honour, professors from around the world made their papers available for free, posting them to Twitter under #pdftribute.

JSTOR also announced an initiative to make articles available to the public just two days before Swartz’s death.

The locking down of access to crucial information by governments who do not understand how the Internet works is not a problem that will go away anytime soon.

Aaron Swartz single-handedly proved that one person can make a difference.

Let nobody convince you otherwise.

Graham Hnatiuk is a political writer and artist. He is the author of the Progressive Winnipeg blog, focusing on local citizen journalism and foreign policy commentary.

Published in Volume 67, Number 20 of The Uniter (February 21, 2013)

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