(Article changed on February 20, 2013 at 12:58)By Alfredo Lopez
Aaron Swartz, casualty in the war to defend freedom of information by ThisCantBeHappening
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 entortionate 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.