Suicide of Aaron Swartz, Net Neutrality Crusader, Sparks Online Activism
In the days following the death of 26-year-old programming prodigy Aaron Swartz, activists aligned with Swartz's causes have memorialized him with a fresh wave of efforts to promote open information and internet freedom.
Media outlets have been cautious about suggesting that Aaron Swartz’s suicide on Friday, Jan. 11 was a direct result of his impending federal trial. A renowned programmer who co-authored the technology behind the RSS Web-feed and contributed to the creation of the website Reddit, Swartz used his skill and notoriety to champion the cause of open access to information online. At the time of Swartz's death, he was facing up to 35 years in prison for allegedly breaking into an MIT computer closet to illegally download academic files for free online publication. Swartz’s family angrily cited the federal case—and the overreach of the judicial system—as contributing to the tragedy:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” the statement said. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
Swartz’s death has caused a public outcry that has found voice, appropriately, online. Family, friends, fans and the general public are lashing out against the double injustice that ate away at Swartz: the heavy-handed legal system (Swartz’s personal struggle) and the anti-democratic control of information (Swartz’s cause).
Activists have started a petition on the White House’s website accusing the judicial system of overreach and calling for the removal of U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz. The petition, which has already collected 12,600 signatures at the time this article was written, cites a blog post of Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard University and friend of Swartz, that describes the extent of injustice suffered by Swartz. Lessig writes:
From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen,' we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars' — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. ...It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense...I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Lessig concedes that “if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate.”
But other voices online, like the hacktivist group Anonymous, beg to differ. Taking up where Swartz left off in the fight for open access to information, Anonymous took credit for hacking the websites of MIT and the Department of Justice. In a message posted Sunday on MIT's website, the group noted that it didn't hold the institution responsible and apologized for "temporary use of their websites." The message asserted that "Aaron's act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.” It went on to call for the 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."
It is unclear whether Anonymous plans to escalate their initial response with another hack, but in the mean time, another online action is drawing attention. C NET reports that by Sunday morning, an initiative to publish academic PDF documents for free had inspired hundreds of researchers to provide links to their own publications. Using the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute, the collection of uploaded documents (which continues to increase in size) is intended as an affront to JSTOR and other companies that take advantage of copyright law to profit from academic work—which is often funded by public universities.
Swartz's death has rocked the Internet activist community, but has also touched many more who trade in the exposure of information that would otherwise be kept secret. Writing for Jacobin this weekend, In These Times Staff Writer Mike Elk recounted an incident in which he uncovered a controversial story involving the former Washington Director of MoveOn.org, and earned the ire of powerful progressives. Swartz came to his defense, using his pull to quell gossip and stick up for Elk's reporting. In the wake of the tragedy, Elk notes, "The only thing left to do is to rededicate myself to what Swartz committed so much of his energy to — getting knowledge to the public that the elites want to keep to themselves."