In an open letter co-signed by Fee Plumley and I, we suggest to JSTOR’s publisher ITHAKA renaming their free accounts in memoriam of Aaron Swartz. What would be a simple thing to implement for ITHAKA would have powerful resonance in a community coming to terms with this tragic loss. Anyone who supports the idea is encouraged to add their name to the letter or on the duplicate post on Fee’s reallybigroadtrip
The loss of Aaron Swartz on 11 January 2013 is a tragic one in so many ways. First and foremost, it is a tragic loss for his friends and family. It is a tragic loss for all of us in the open community/ies. And it is a tragic loss to every single person who has ever used the internet.
The remarkable thing about Aaron Swartz is how much he made other people’s lives better; people who will likely never even know who he is or how and why he made their lives better.While there are numerous tributes written by greater people than I (for example, Lawrence Lessig (twice!), Cory Doctorow, Glenn Greenwald), I wanted to get some thoughts down about why I feel the passing of Aaron Swartz is a big deal.
While I had never met Aaron we shared a number of common interests. Like me, he stood for internet freedom, access to information and knowledge and civil liberties; and delivered on this as “… a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber,” so Cory Doctorow says. But his deeds were much greater than mine have been.
When he was 14 he helped write the RSS 1.0 specifications, which would help people manage what they read online. While still in his teens he was helping build the code layer of the Creative Commons licences, something that would set the Creative Commons suite of licences apart from the broader open licensing schemes. I strongly believe that it was (and is) this technical interoperability and versatility that has made CC arguably the most well-known and used licensing scheme of its kind. And if that wasn’t enough, he also helped the establishment of reddit and Open Library.
Demand Progress, a non-profit that he co-founded, was instrumental in the campaign to prevent the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the United States. If it had passed, the content industry-demanded legislation would vest a scary amount of censorship control over the internet in the United States government.
As Glenn Greenwald, writing on guardian.co.uk, said, “Swartz didn’t commit himself to these causes merely by talking about them or advocating for them. He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies.” He took a stand against the US Government’s pay-per-page court records system PACER, downloading and freely distributed millions of court documents at his own expense. And fair enough; taxpayer money paid to create the documents, and the government was charging taxpayers again. His act of so-called civil disobedience saw him investigated by the FBI, but they dropped the matter without pressing charges.
But his actions to liberate scholarly content from the JSTOR archive in July 2011 weren’t overlooked. Using access provided to him as a fellow of the Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, he downloaded a sizeable volume of academic papers from JSTOR while at a MIT library. At one point he accessed the MIT network directly. Cumulatively he copied around 4 million papers.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts indict him for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After Swartz returned the copies to ITHAKA, the publisher of JSTOR, they chose not to pursue him further. MIT’s lack of formal response meant the US Attorney’s Office was able to continue its overzealous pursuit of Swartz. I agree with Lawrence Lessig who said, “I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”
There is a lot of controversy and commentary about the case, which was due to go to court next month. And while it is not my place to speculate on how or why Swartz committed suicide, I agree with Glenn Greenwald, “… it only stands to reason that a looming criminal trial that could send him to prison for decades [and leave him financially destitute] played some role in this; even if it didn’t, this persecution by the DOJ is an outrage and an offense against all things decent.” In conversations with friends I have often argued that ‘copyright should not kill.’ It saddens me that Aaron Swartz is another notable person on the list of people killed by copyright.
Before I finish this post, I want to take up a comment made by Cory Doctorow: “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics.” I think his scope for change was even greater than politics alone. I don’t know what the average life expectancy is, but it has to be a good deal longer than 26 years. Given his impressive track record of projects and advocacy, I can’t help but wonder what else we may have been commending Aaron Swartz for in another 26 years (and another 26 on that!). If you ask me, that’s the real tragedy.∗