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Hounding Aaron Swartz to His Death

Prabir Purkayastha

29th January, 2013

AARON Swartz, an activist for free information, a precocious talent who had designed and developed a whole host of tools that we all use today, committed suicide on January 11. He was facing 35 years in jail and One million dollars in fines. Incidentally, David Hadley being tried in the US also faces a similar length of sentence that Aaron was facing. Killing hundreds or freeing information that is being privatised by big corporations are seen by the US government as similar crimes.

At 26, Aaron leaves behind what very few people can achieve even in a lifetime. Aaron in his young life, had not only developed RSS feed, helped to set up the Creative Commons license, was a co-founder of Reddit, set up Demand Progress, a digital rights group and was behind the hugely successful online protests that lead to defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year.

Aaron joins those that the US government, the supposed champion of freedom on the internet, is prepared to hound ruthlessly, if need be to their deaths. Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and Aaron are all victims of a society where stealing billions of dollars of public money does not earn even a gentle rap on the knuckles, but freeing information is seen to be a danger for all that the US stands for. Clearly, the US government believes that the ethical hacker community – those who write computer code to help the common good – are suspect in activities such as Wikileaks. In hounding Aaron, they were sending a message to this community.

Aaron was facing 35 years in jail and One million dollars in fines for trying to download the archives of JSTOR, the online repository of scientific and social sciences journals using the MIT network. His family in a statement has held the US prosecutors responsible for his death, “Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles."


The digital commons and the internet community are paying their tribute to Aaron in different ways. Some like Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the father of the internet, have mourned his passing, “Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder”; others have condemned the bullying prosecutors for hounding Aaron to his death. Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons wrote, “Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Lawrence Liang of the Alternate Law Forum, in an interview with Newsclick, described Aaron as the first martyr for freeing information.

“Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way," wrote Peter Eckersley of Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Others have decided to take up the cause of digital freedom more directly. Micah Allen, a researcher in the fields of brain plasticity, cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive science called for dumping research papers in public domain, "A fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles," Allen wrote on Reddit. "Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link." Already, people are using the hashtag #pdftributeaaronswartz or #pdftribute to upload such texts.

Anonymous has defaced MIT's webpages for its role and called his prosecution, "a grotesque miscarriage of justice”. It also called for “this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.”

Aaron was convinced that knowledge and information should not be the property of a few corporations and hidden behind pay-walls. In his manifesto, written in 2008, he wrote, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.”

Aaron called on people not just to campaign for a free information system but also argued that we should fight back by “liberating” such protected knowledge. He refused to accept this “privatisation of knowledge” by large corporations, who have bought off the governments. He called this as Guerilla Open Access and identified this to be in the grand tradition of civil disobedience.


For Aaron, liberating knowledge behind pay-walls was a moral imperative. He, as his wont, plunged into this activity head-on. First, he took on PACER, the database of US Court judgements or case law. PACER charges 10 cents a page for what is effectively public domain information. He single handedly “liberated” 20 per cent of PACER's documents. While his activities were put under the scanner, ultimately the US law authorities decided not to press charges.

His next brush was with MIT and JSTOR, the online store of academic articles. JSTOR has over 4.2 million articles, which is accessible only through paid subscriptions. There has been an ongoing battle over academic publications; the entire content, review, selection and even editing is done by the academic community free of any charge. But access to such material is only through paid copies or online subscriptions. Even though Open Access Journals have made some headway, the bulk of advanced journals are expensive and available only in the libraries of institutes and universities that can afford such high prices. Aaron decided to do something direct; he downloaded almost the entire JSTOR collection using a laptop connected to MIT's network.

Once this was discovered, the US Attorney's office swung into action. For them, it did not matter that JSTOR did not press charges and has even taken a decision a few weeks back to release into public domain a large part of its archives. They went after Aaron for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act passed in 1984. What the US government is protecting is information and knowledge as private property, also the core of SOPA.

Behind this harsh prosecution of Aaron lies a bigger fear that the US government has. More the information that is digitised within the government, more the potential of its becoming public. What Bradely Manning could take out from his computer and his network on a few CD's would have taken a number of trunks if they were hard copy documents. It is this digitised information that is now vulnerable to access using computer networks and even the internet. As also all copyrighted material.

For the US government, this was therefore a test case of how far the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act could be stretched and the government’s ability to prosecute hackers. Freedom of the internet is a welcome goal everywhere else, but not in the US. Remember how vigorously the US supposedly “fought” for internet freedom in the recent ITU conference in Dubai?

Various legal experts have already stated that the US government was wrongly converting a civil case into a criminal case by claiming that violation of the terms of access or terms of use of a web site is computer fraud. Pressing criminal charges that could mean 35 years jail for an act of civil disobedience was far beyond what could be even remotely construed as commensurate with the “crime”. It cannot be understood unless we understood the message that the US government is delivering – freeing information whether in government or private hands through privatisation of public knowledge – are now to be considered “heinous” crimes equivalent to mass murder.

With Aaron's death, we have all lost a valued comrade in our fight for the digital commons. We cannot match his brilliance in creating new tools for the digital commons. But collectively, we can all fight the good fight for liberating information and knowledge. This should be our tribute to Aaron. As also fighting for a just society that does not penalise those who fight for public good, while lauding those who steal from the public.



Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 06:46