Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Death of Swartz

Swartz and I go back to 2007. I spoke to him online in IRC a few times, and on the phone one time. Since then, Aaron and I never spoke. But his apparent suicide bothers me. Any time there is a political activist—an individual dedicated to the truth of the world—who commits suicide, I find it difficult to take. Aaron Swartz started the progressive and liberal Demand Progress organization. He founded Reddit. He authored the first RSS protocol. He fought against SOPA. He had the mind of a computer programmer and the heart of a revolutionary, and he was in good company at Stanford. And this can produce a significant number of political enemies.

When I was told that he was being charged with hacking, I wasn't surprised. I thought it would blow over, because Aaron was unusually careful about knowing the limitations of the rules he broke or bent. And he was so dedicated to his causes, which ranged from internet legal reforms to restructuring of our copyright system. And though he and I really didn't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but his aim was always altruistic. And I really respected that about him.

I remember in 2009 that Aaron downloaded almost 20 million documents from a system called PACER, a system that I knew next to nothing about. His activism in this case was bent on promoting the idea of free information—information that the government traditionally paid to distribute, but was charging something like 19 cents a page for—and Aaron got investigated by the FBI, who decided that while he was in fact taking more than his fair share of documents, there was nothing criminal about it: PACER was offering the documents for a free trial. But the fact is, these documents were not protected by copyright (the government's self-produced documents don't qualify for copyright).

So in 2011 when they filed charges against him for hacking, I thought it was related until I got the details from the news. The JSTOR system is a collection of academic journals—again, these used to be given freely to anyone at university libraries, even if they themselves weren't free to the libraries—and they charged him with some kind of wiretapping fraud which I can't even begin to understand (interpreting legalese isn't my strong point), but they were going to put him in prison for 35 years and fine him more than $1 million. And that's enough for anyone to become depressed.

And he was in fact upset. So upset he committed suicide. Words cannot convey the grief I feel at this.

Lawrence Lessig (whom I have also emailed on occasion) was Swarz's friend. Everyone involved talks about how the law reached too far into his head, pounding him down into rubble to make sure he understood just what kind of verminous scum he was—after all, how dare he "hack" into a computer system by opening an unlocked closet door and connecting his laptop to a campus computer network so that he could download 4 million documents which were accessible to anyone on that network? They said that his intent was to distribute this via the P2P (file sharing) networks. And they may have been right. But this young man was hardly someone worthy of the label of 'felon' and he certainly didn't carry himself like a hardened criminal.

I am a hardened criminal. I did things in my youth which were absolutely reprehensible. I hurt people. Aaron didn't. And yet they prosecuted him because of the openly-hostile attitude against the use of a technology which helped save a few lives during the 2009 Iran Elections Protests—a technology that, were we still truly about protecting the rights of people, we would embrace instead of abhor. Aaron was dedicated to the rights of people on the internet. People who try to lock away information which contains life-saving information (such as cutting-edge research found only in academic journals) are creating the problem.

And Aaron Swartz believed this so strongly that he was willing to risk a year or two in jail. But 35 years was what they were going to hand him—a lesson not in justice or fairness, but one based in the idea of suppression. Disproportionality violates the basic purpose of the law: proportionality is the idea that the punishment should fit the crime.

Was Aaron Swartz's life worth a few gigabytes of random data? It was to him. It's a pity that law enforcement officials didn't think so.

After all, he was just some low-life who went around hurting people, right?