Aaron Swartz, Hero and Martyr by Jeffrey Tucker
My apologies for the sad tone of this piece, but a hero has fallen and we need to pay him tribute — and make sure his death is not in vain.
Every turning point in the history of civilization has its champions and its opponents. The opponents of the digital age are those who use the power of the state to keep the population in a state of ignorance, even though the technology is at hand to universalize knowledge through digital networks. The main weapon they use is known as “intellectual property,” even though the monopoly censorship they advocate has nothing to do with actual property.
The champions of the digital age are doing the opposite, breaking down the limits and working to spread enlightenment through peaceful means. They understand the astonishing power of computer networks to produce, reproduce, scale, and distribute unto infinity everything that can be rendered into digital form. Their work has set off the greatest migration in human history from the limits of the physical world to the unlimited possibilities embedded in global computer networks.
One such champion — now a martyr for the cause of freedom — was Aaron Swartz (1986-2013). He was the one of the brightest stars of his generation. That star took his own life in apparent frustration, depression, and fear over the ghastly hounding he was receiving from the U.S. Department of Justice. You might say that this David should have battled this Goliath to the death. But Aaron was only 26, a brilliant, kind, and sensitive young man whose passion was not war, but enlightenment. It was too much for him.
Born in Chicago, he showed astonishing promise at an early age. He came of age as the Internet opened to the world. He was winning prizes and meeting the greats at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 13. At 14, he co-authored “Really Simple Syndication,” an innovative means of assembling and distributing Web content that makes Web browsing easy. It powers the “app economy,” makes reader programs work, and enables the content to be mixed and remixed all over the digital universe.
Aaron founded in Infogami, which later turned into Reddit, one of the Web’s most popular sites for information sharing and content generation. As with most of his projects, Reddit pushes aside the gatekeepers and puts the tools of creation in the hands of users. He then founded openlibrary.org on the same principle: By devolving power to you and me and away from the big shots, we can create tools that serve humanity in unprecedented ways.
To Aaron, the digital economy was not really about running the world through code and technology. It was about empowering people themselves with the ability to contribute to the building of ever greater technologies in the service of humanity. As much as he loved code, his true affections were for the human mind and the way technology enables it to take flight as never before. He could never understand why government was in resistance. He was like a person in the Renaissance raised with the printing press, astonished at people who wanted to smash it.
He was so convinced that digits were powered by human minds that he even put it to the test in seeking the real power behind Wikipedia. He refuted the supposition of even co-founder Jimmy Wales that it was a relatively small number of editors who were the main content providers. He demonstrated that the main providers were millions of users themselves, thereby upending even what the owners and experts had supposed. (He was only 19 years old when he showed this.)
Aaron was facing a trial this coming April, with him on one side and the full power of the world’s most heavily armed government on the other. The prosecution wanted him fined more than a million dollars and jailed for possibly 30-plus years. And what had he done? He hid a laptop in a closet at MIT and downloaded academic papers that are already available to millions around the world, with the apparent attempt to make them available even more broadly. That’s all he did. For this, he was charged with wire fraud and computer fraud.
The database he had tapped into is known as JSTOR. It is a global archive of academic papers published over the last 100 years in all fields and disciplines. It allows students to search, assemble, cite, and study in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Bibliographies that once took months to assemble now take seconds. Research once available to a tiny number is now available to students and faculty the world over.
JSTOR is a mighty service, even a marvel, and there are good reasons to celebrate the company and its achievements. At the same time, there is something squirrely about the service. It is available only at superhigh subscription prices and allocated based on geographic IP address. If you are on campus, you can get the goods. If you are not and have no logins, you are out of luck. Outside the IP range, it’s darkness.
Remember, we are talking about scientific research that is mostly tax-funded and from which the authors themselves receive no royalty or payment of any kind. Moreover, the subscription system is made profitable not because of the forces of free enterprise, but because the payments are made largely by public universities also living off taxpayers. The whole thing smacks of a kind of information feudalism. The scientists are the serfs. Those without access are cast into the outer darkness.
To its credit, JSTOR never lifted a finger against Aaron. They knew of his downloads, but never pressed charges. In fact, JSTOR has responded to his activism by gradually moving toward a more open policy. MIT can’t say the same, but the real villain here was the federal government. “Stealing is stealing,” barked U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.”
Except for one thing: That is completely false. Crowbars hurt people. Stealing dollars takes from one person to give to another. But Aaron didn’t take anything away from anyone. Ortiz might not understand this, but when you download something, it doesn’t actually remove it from the original server. It makes an exact copy. It can do this with no limit. That’s the whole power of digital media.
The driving motivation in Aaron’s mind was information liberation. We have the capacity — right now in our times — to create global libraries of all known things. What’s stopping it is this antique institution known as copyright, an outright government privilege for monopolistic producers who use the violence of the state to stop peaceful sharing of knowledge. Aaron was offended by such limits in times when they are wholly unnecessary and cause unneeded human suffering.
Aaron didn’t choose the path of piracy and underground hacking to disable the feudalism. He wasn’t even particularly exercised about copyright itself. What he favored was freedom, free speech in particular. He sought constructive alternatives, which is why he was a great champion of Creative Commons, a system that uses existing copyright law, but allows writers and researchers to share their discoveries and creations with humanity, instead of having them smothered.
All that said, it wasn’t his attempt to liberate JSTOR that caused the government to go after him. No, it was something far more specular. Aaron also founded Common Dreams as a vehicle for digital activism. Much to the astonishment of nearly everyone, he marshaled the power of global networks last year to beat back one of the most deadly pieces of legislation to ever be proposed by Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
SOPA was at war with the whole idea of information sharing, which is to say the whole basis of modern economic life and cultural progress. It would have given the power to any private party to aggress against any distributor of information and to do so without warnings, hearings, or burdens of proof. Taken to its extreme, the legislation would have rolled back history to a pre-1995 state of being.
Because no one told him that he could not, Aaron used every innovation to stop it. Within a matter of weeks, Congress backed off in absolute fear of the global outrage that had been engendered by the educational materials that Aaron had distributed. What no one expected had happened. Even politicians in the pay of media moguls backed down.
It was beautiful. In doing this, Aaron not only stopped the leviathan state; he pointed to the possibility of something completely marvelous, a reinvention of the way that citizens take part in the political process. In other words, he was showing how computer networks themselves could be used to upend the power of the state as we know it. He was innovating a new form of restraining power and giving it back to people, doing for the business of civic affairs what he had already done with technology.
The establishment was insanely bitter about the defeat. Within days, the government took action against the popular file-sharing site Megaupload in a military-style hit against its founder’s private estate, using SOPA-like powers that Congress had just denied the beast. It was as if the establishment was saying, “We don’t care about Aaron and what he did. We want this power. We are going to use the power. The people have nothing to do with it.”
Aaron’s work pointed to a brighter future. The government never forgave him for this. This is why they hounded him. This is why they wanted to bankrupt him. This is why they wanted him behind bars. They wanted him brought low. They wanted him in an orange jumpsuit, eating old bread and groveling before the judges and wardens. And they would accept no compromise, despite his lawyers attempts to negotiate: Aaron must be captured and jailed.
He would not relent. He would not give up his dreams and let them be shattered by their lies, pomps, black robes, and prisons. Our hearts break — deeply and profoundly — at Aaron’s decision to take his life. Maybe he saw it as a last cry for freedom. His having done so makes it impossible for them to make him a slave.
The state has taken from us an epic genius and humanitarian. What can come of this? Sometimes, the suffering and death of one great individual can shock society into dramatic change in a legal practice. Such people become martyrs, and their memories touch the conscience of everyone. We are overwhelmed by the sense of loss, and we vow to never see its like again.
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” — Soren Kierkegaard
Jeffrey Tucker is the publisher and executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, the Primus inter pares of the Laissez Faire Club, and the author of Bourbon for Breakfast: Living Outside the Statist Quo, It's a Jetsons World: Private Miracles and Public Crimes, and A Beautiful Anarchy: How to Build Your Own Civilization in the Digital Age, among thousands of articles. Click to sign up for his free daily letter. Email him: email@example.com | Facebook | Twitter | Google
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