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The unjust death of Aaron Swartz

When Aaron Swartz was 14, he helped author RSS 1.0., an internet program essential to the operation of many contemporary websites. He would later go on to help with the Creative Commons copyright license. His website Infogami, which would later be used to support the web.py framework and Open Library sites, merged with Reddit in 2006, making him an equal partner in the company. He became heavily involved with the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act. He posted the complete bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress to the Open Library, making it readily available. He was committed to a free Internet, and to the sharing of ideas and information through it. Two weeks ago, at the age of 26, he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

From late 2010 to early 2011, Swartz downloaded around four million articles from JSTOR. For this, he was arrested by federal law enforcement and was eventually charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. His case would test the power of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was meant to augment the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers for illicit reasons, such as theft or disruption.

If convicted, he faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. His lawyers told the prosecutors how he was a suicide risk and had a history of depression, but still prosecutors continued in the pursuit of making an example out of Swartz for the Internet community. Instead, prosecutors gave the Open Access movement a martyr.

The rationale of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (someone continually noted as possessing political aspirations and a desire to make a name for herself) was that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” Ortiz’s comments illustrate the federal government’s lack of understanding when persecuting Swartz. Yes, he did take 4 million JSTOR articles, though he had legal access to JSTOR through MIT, and arresting him for downloading too many articles, ostensibly by Swartz’s philosophy, was not unlike arresting someone for checking out too many library books. He was not a bank robber who used his computer skills to take money, though I do not doubt that he certainly could have if he wanted, but was instead an activist who used his prodigious talents to attempt to right what he perceived as wrong.

And even if his intention was to share those 4 million articles over P2P sites, which was most likely the objective, it was out of a desire to share knowledge and technology. To Swartz and others who subscribe to the same ideas, the Internet is a tool that connects people like nothing that has ever existed before, and the conglomeration of information that sites like JSTOR represent is a crime because sites such as these are not open sources of information. Swartz did something similar when he downloaded around twenty percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database of U.S. federal court documents, which at the time was available for eight cents a page, and then promptly sent them out for public distribution. He felt that information was such a valuable commodity that it should be available to any who so desired it. It was an idealistic notion; one that I support wholeheartedly.

At our fingertips, we possess nearly all of the intellectual work that humanity has to offer, and it is being digitized and sequestered away, in the hands of publishers that charge for something that many feel should be free. Some have accused Swartz and those who share his sentiments as being misguided, feeling that demanding that information be free could hamper the quality of it, and that it fails to reward those responsible for the articles. But yet, JSTOR charges exorbitant amounts for some of their articles, from $12 to a preposterous $34 for an article on the Black Act of 1723. Often, the price for all of the articles that comprise a journal issue well exceeds the cost of the issue itself.

Information is power. And to Swartz, this power belongs in the hands of the people as a whole, not simply those in the realm of academia. Anyone who has the desire and the drive to learn should be able to. Thus, it was a fitting tribute that when news of his death reached the Internet, supporters responded with #pdftribute, with scholars posting links to their works as a memorial.

Swartz’s case is also troubling for it is yet another example of the mental health mishandled. He had gone public with his history of depression, which played a part in his leaving of Wired after Reddit was acquired by its parent company in late 2006. His attorneys made a point of explaining to the prosecution that he was a risk, and that their relentless and unflinching pursuit of him would only serve to harm him. They wished to make an example out of this phenomenal talent, and instead they only served to extinguish it.

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