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Aaron Swartz and the Fight for Information Freedom


In the madness of our media-fed consciousness, the greatest threat to an informative news story is time. Given enough time, and the dysfunctional and disinformative way the mainstream media cover news, even the most important and revealing story quickly dies out.

That is, unless we who use alternative media keep that story alive.

So it is with the death of the remarkable technologist Aaron Swartz. It’s been only a month since Aaron apparently killed himself in his apartment here in Brooklyn and yet the story has pretty much disappeared from mainstream news. The threat is not only that the legacy of this remarkable young technologist will also disappear but that the analysis of his life and death and the policies they bring into relief will be frustrated.

During the brief spasm of mainstream coverage, the most prominent line being circulated was that he was a casualty of the sloppiness, pettiness and bullying of a federal government that went too far in its prosecution of him. The truth is that Aaron Swartz was a target of a deliberately vicious, sadistic government campaign in which the federal government wanted to make his pain an example to the entire progressive techie community. What’s more, his death was the outcome of a policy that is a threat to human freedom. That’s why we need to keep talking about Aaron Swartz.

To talk that talk, it’s important to be clear about what actually happened.

Swartz was a 26-year-old programmer and Internet activist whose accomplishments would be stellar for a person three times his age. He wrote many programs that are now used routinely on the Internet and its servers, he helped build resource websites to gather and provide those kinds of resources to people who needed them and he was active in organizing around issues of freedom and access. In the techie universe, he was a blazing super-star.

Like every committed progressive techie, Aaron Swartz believed that information should be accessible to everyone and, over the years, he campaigned against information hoarding and restriction and took concrete actions that dramatized that important issue. One day he walked into a server room at MIT (to which he had full, legal access) and set up a small device that captured files from a server belonging to JSTOR, a private company that was selling downloadable scholarly papers and materials for a dime a page. (This, by the way, is not money that goes to the actual creators of the materials in question. It goes to JSTOR and MIT. For the most part, the copyright laws are being used to enrich corporations, not creators, as publishers and employers routinely require the creators, on an extortionate take-it-or-leave-it basis, to sign over their control of copyright when they sign a publishing contract or an employment contract.)

Aaron downloaded everything without paying a penny, thereby violating JSTOR’s “terms of service” (the rules governing your interaction with the server). People at MIT can download stuff off that server for free but they can’t download it to redistribute it, and so MIT’s administration turned Aaron into the Feds, claiming that’s what he was going to do. The U.S. Attorney for that area of the country, Carmen Ortiz, apparently saw the potential for setting an example. She and her team of assistant attorneys went after Swartz with a vengeance, piling count upon count on in an indictment that accused him of felony theft.

They offered a stunned Swartz a deal: plead guilty to a felony and we’ll recommend six months in jail. He refused. He wasn’t guilty after all. So then they piled on more charges. At that point, if he were found guilty he could have gone to jail for over 35 years!

I don’t know what went through Aaron’s head as he put it into a noose that final Friday of his life. I know he was alone, and being alone makes everything scarier and more desperate. Some speculate that it was the case that drove him to suicide. Others say he was overcome by the depression that did, from time to time, plague him. Ortiz actually had the gall to argue that, had he taken their deal instead of stubbornly insisting on his innocence, none of this would have happened.

Such is the country we’re living in that a federal prosecutor would imply that someone’s death is the outcome of their stubborn desire to exercise their right to a legal defense.

In fact, had the case gone to court, it could well have ended in acquittal or very minor convictions. What Aaron did may have been a violation of “Terms of Service” but he wasn’t planning on selling anything and hadn’t yet distributed any of it. A jury would have been hard pressed to send this young man to jail for something people do everyday on the Internet.

But these government bullies were playing the odds that Aaron would crack, hand them a lovely legal precedent and serve as a “back off” warning to others who might have similar plans. They knew that, for a white middle-class kid with very little street experience, the prospect of going to jail was a nightmare and for a techie, who combats the inevitable isolation of his or her work by on-line relationships with the rest of humanity, being in a cell without a laptop would be akin to death.

So, one morning when he was alone (and probably at a moment when he felt as alone as a human being can feel) Aaron gave it up and we all suffered an enormous loss. The government people probably didn’t expect him to kill himself, but that doesn’t change the fact that they drove him to suicide.

Those of us who think about the Obama Administration’s policies on imprisonment without trial, detention in what are effectively concentration camps, and the use of slaughter (by drone and army) as a political tactic shouldn’t be surprised by what they did. But the question remains. Why did they do it?

There are so many battles going on over our right to information that it’s not easy to drill down to the real answer. There are battles, fought in courts, blogs and conferences, over copyright, website access, privacy, email and data protection, and freedom of satire, criticism and expression.

Thousands of actions by governments all over the world and hundreds of cases in our own country’s courts show a frightening, galloping trend toward information control. Small armies of progressive Internet activists have taken up that fight. We’re winning some and losing some.

Aaron Swartz was a major fighter in those struggles and he concentrated on the strategic lynchpin of all government and corporate policy on data: the notion that someone can actually own an idea or a body of information.

When you look at it soberly, the very concept is absurd. How in the world can any person claim ownership of an idea? In a world that is built on collaboration, populated by human beings whose key to survival has been our instinct to collaborate, has there ever been an “original idea”? Yet almost all law is based on that distorted and artificial concept, ignoring the combination of vast experience, conversations, reading, and research that hones every idea.

Techies understand. So collaborative is the work of a techie that the very notion of an original idea has no meaning in techie-talk. Nobody invents anything; they “play a leading role” in its development. You don’t write code alone; you combine libraries of code written and developed by thousands of others and freely available, with code gleaned from your interaction with other techies and you write the whole thing in languages collaboratively and collectively developed by programmers world-wide. All of this is free and it’s done by people who probably have never met.

Everything you use on the Internet develops that way. The Internet and the technology that supports and drives it are proof of the collaborative nature of all thinking and creation.

In other words, it’s a model for the kind of world a lot of us are trying to build.

That’s why the government, and the corporations that seek to subvert and control copyright law in the interest of profit, were so threatened by Aaron’s actions and the people he might influence. The question Aaron posed that day that he started downloading those documents was: Is research that is based on the experience and thinking of the entire human race not humanity’s property?

Of course, if we start treating information as the collective property of humanity, there are going to be some serious repercussions socially and economically. And that explains the fierceness of the battle between progressives and corporations (and governments serving corporations).

Progressive techies favor Free and Open Source Software because the collaboration needed to produce software means its ownership can’t be restricted. Companies believe in proprietary software because they’ve built their wealth stealing people’s thinking, claiming ownership over it, and then re-selling it to people.

Progressive techies believe in Internet privacy because any attempt to intrude upon, monitor or disrupt communication damages collaboration.

The government doesn’t even know what that means.

Many progressive techies find selling information based on the experiences of the rest of the human race a bizarre obscenity. Corporations live off that obscenity and governments obscenely support them.

Finally, progressive techies believe that complete access to and flow of information is fundamental to the success of struggles for democracy, justice and freedom. Most of the leading governments on earth spend much of their time trying to figure out how to close the faucet on that information flow and close the door on its source.

In the United States, the Obama Administration has not only encouraged but has effectively used on-line communications, and the president even positions himself as a champion of Internet freedom — periodically rattling a toy sabre at those governments that seek to curb it.

But that’s until you reach the bottom line: challenging the idea that someone can own information. That’s the Obama trigger: when people distribute on-sale information, copyrighted materials or information people need to have but that our government wants to keep hidden. At that point this administration has jumped on scores of techies and other Internet activists, taken them to trial, sent them to jail, or taken away their computers in a deal to avoid jail. They have done it with many techie activists, they are doing it with Bradley Manning and they want to do it to Julian Assange.

They just did it with Aaron Swartz.

And they are doing it all over the world.

You don’t hear about many of these cases, because our mass media ignore them and our progressive movements have failed to identify this as the critical political issue it is.

Perhaps that’s the challenge Aaron leaves us. In challenging government and corporate theft and hoarding of information, he also challenged our entire movement to stand up and oppose it. That’s what our techies do and, for our future’s sake, we can’t let any government do to another techie what it did to Aaron Swartz. Techies and their work are too important to us all and we need to tell the governments of the world, our own included, that to get to them, they’ll have to go through us.

ALFREDO LOPEZ is the newest member of the TCBH! collective. A long-time political activist and radical journalist, and founding member of the progressive web-hosting media service MayFirst/PeopleLink, he lives in Brooklyn, NY

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

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