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.