Computer prodigy, cyber activist and social justice activist Aaron Swartz died three weeks ago on Friday 11th Jan. He was just 26 years old. He killed himself in his Brooklyn NY apartment. Some have claimed that he was driven to his death by government prosecution — and indeed persecution. There are many reasons to mourn his death but the most important from my point of view is what could be the government’s role in this tragedy and therein lies the importance of this entirely pointless tragedy. Lawrence Lessig calls it bullying and Aaron’s family called it the “prosecutorial overreach” by the Massachusetts US attorney’s office. That’s serious for a number of reasons. But first, here’s the background.
A quick piece that The Economist ran on Jan 13th gives a sense of who Aaron was.
To a call Aaron Swartz gifted would be to miss the point. As far as the internet was concerned, he was the gift. In 2001, aged just 14, he helped develop a new version of RSS feeds, which enable blog posts, articles and videos to be distributed easily across the web. A year later he was working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, and others on enhancing the internet through the Semantic Web, in which web-page contents would be structured so that the underlying data could be shared and reused across different online applications and endeavours. At the same time he was part of a team, composed of programmers like himself (albeit none quite as youthful), lawyers and policy wonks, that launched Creative Commons, a project that simplified information-sharing through free, easy-to-use copyright licences.
Most of this he did for little or no compensation. One exception was Reddit, though he later sounded almost contrite about the riches showered on him and his colleagues by Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue and over a dozen other prominent lifestyle magazines, which bought the popular social news site in 2006. In any case, he wasn’t a good fit for corporate life, he said, and left a few months later—or, depending on whom you talk to, was asked to leave. But the cash did let him focus on his relentless struggle to liberate data for online masses to enjoy for free.
For although programming was his first love, campaigning was his true vocation. He co-founded Demand Progress, a group that rails against internet censorship and which played a prominent role in the online campaign last year that helped to scupper proposed anti-piracy legislation supported by Hollywood film studios and other content owners. His Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008 presaged—and perhaps inspired—recent threats by academics to shun journals that charge readers for access.
[The Economist also did an obituary on Jan 19th.]
People who worked with Aaron were devastated by his suicide. Tim Berners-Lee simply declared “Let us weep.”
Three simple words: let us weep. You can feel the deep sorrow, the anguish, the pain in them. That was retweeted over five thousand times. Aaron’s death affected me very powerfully although I knew nothing about him and had only heard about him in passing before this. My tweet
“But I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”
Those words are from a song by Don McLean, “Vincent” about Vincent van Gogh. A beautiful sad song which goes
Now I understand what you tried to say to me,
How you suffered for your sanity,
How you tried to set them free.
They would not listen, they did not know how.
Perhaps they’ll listen now.
For they could not love you,
But still your love was true.
And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry, starry night,
You took your life, as lovers often do.
But I could have told you, Vincent,
This world was never meant for one
As beautiful as you.
Lawrence Lessig, professor at the Harvard Law School, was a friend and mentor to Aaron. He spoke with Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow.org a few days after Aaron’s death.
In the second part of that interview, Lessig comes close to tears saying, “there were a thousand things we could have done, a thousand things . . . ” (5:50 time stamp) —
Lessig’s blog post of Jan 12th, “Prosecutor as Bully,” ended in anger and sadness. He wrote:
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
Lessig wrote another piece on Jan 18th, A Time for Silence, brimming with anger against the government prosecutor and sorrow for having lost someone he loved.
It is hard to comprehend a mind that at age 16 in 2002 write out instructions for what’s to be done in case he dies:
“If I get hit by a truck…
…please read this web page”
In 2008, Aaron wrote what he called a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. His aim was to ensure that information that should be free must be easily and freely accessible to everyone who wanted it.
Governments Consider Reformists as Enemies
From an economics point of view, information is a good that is different from physical goods. Understanding that distinction is important in this age when information has a very critical role to play in society. The revolution in information and communications technology has brought about a structural change in how society functions. It has changed the economics of society and more critically how politics is done. Any structural shift creates winners and losers. Those who stand to lose from a structural change understandably fight against the change. Governments–or more accurately, the people who represent governments–predictably consider people like Aaron enemies of the state. This is true in advanced industrialized countries like the US and it is true in poverty-stricken countries like India.
An informed citizenry, said Thomas Jefferson, is the only true repository of the public will. Ostensibly the government is supposed to be responsive to the public will in a republic but in truth the government does what is in the interests of those who control the levers of the state. An informed citizenry is the last thing that the government wants because that will shift power to the people.
I know now why I found the Aaron Swartz suicide so depressing. It brought home very powerfully how even in an open society such as the US, the government is powerful enough that someone who has done so much good (and indeed had the potential to do much greater things) finally despairs to the point of killing himself. If this can happen in the 21st century CE and in a rich country, what about poor underdeveloped countries? There simply is no hope for the others.
Aaron was hounded because of what he was capable of doing. He had at least 50 years or more of active life left in him. He would have done things that could have fundamentally changed politics. He was a threat to the established order and therefore he had to pay. They tried to corner him in the past and he got away. Now they had cornered him once again and this time they were not willing to let him go.
I come back to the situation in India. There are people who are fighting against the government. So far, nobody has shown himself or herself to be a real threat. The government knows that all those popular movements — such as India Against Corruption — are passing fads and will not really bring about any structural change. If any of these movements had really threatened those in power, the leaders of those movements would been taken care of in short order. Nobody in powerful governmental positions is a fool to allow real threats to go unanswered.
Here’s a simple test to figure out if someone is going to bring about real and positive change to the system: if the government has not pitted the state’s power against the person, the person is not relevant.
Aaron is ultimately a symbol. He fought the good fight and in the end, tragically decided that he could not win. He gave up. I weep for him, not because I personally knew him but because of what he represented — one last hope that the individual can win against a powerful state. The state is all too powerful and that’s the tragedy of our age.
The rest is mere exegesis.
Links related to Aaron Swartz’s death here:
1. Letter to Aaron Swartz’s prosecutor Carmen Ortiz by Jesse Kornbluth.
2. Economist article of July 2010. Too many laws, too many prisoners. “Never in the civilised world have so many been locked up for so little.”
3. “Freedom to Connect: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) on Victory to Save Open Internet, Fight Online Censors.” Transcript of Aaron Swartz’s talk.
4. “The Death of Aaron Swartz,” by Peter Singer and Agata Sagan in the NY Review of Books. Jan 18, 2013.
5. Linus Torvalds on Aaron Swartz’s death.
6. The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s “Crime” by Alex Stamos.