- 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 digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations - Aaron Swartz.
In a piece written in early February about Dolours Price who had died just over a week earlier I referred to the death at 26 of Aaron Swartz, the young US internet activist. The common denominator was that Carmen Ortiz, the politically ambitious but cruel Massachusetts prosecutor, was central to both cases and wholly indifferent to the people she pursued. She hounded Dolours Price over the Boston College archive tapes and and she hounded Aaron Swartz over illegally accessing academic journals from JSTOR. Both died in the course of their separate but related battles against her.
Aaron Swartz may have ended his life by his own hand in his Brooklyn apartment one Friday in January, but there was pressure being exerted by another hand. For sure it was suicide but it was also death by bullying.
Aaron Swartz was something of an internet genius who had neither time nor patience for toll bridges mounted as obstacles on the information freeway.
By the age of 14:
Aaron gave us RSS—the syndication protocol that feeds information across the Net automatically. Two years later, he developed the technical architecture for Creative Commons—a system of free copyright licenses authorizing people to share creative work freely. He later helped build the Open Library, to catalog books online. He liberated, legally, a database (known as PACER) of government-owned court documents, thus lowering the cost of many legal services. He provided a key technical component to the news site Reddit, becoming an equal partner in that incredibly successful company. And just before his death, he was completing work on a suite of tools to make online activism insanely more effective.All of which caused the FBI to hate him and then harass him in cohorts with the Prosecutor's office. The internet activist and relentless campaigner against censorship faced lengthy jail time plus fines so incredibly high even a greedy banker could never afford to pay them for 'downloading a bunch of obscure academic treatises without a subscription ... not to make a buck, but to make a point.’
It was clear that Swartz was vulnerable and at risk of suicide yet callousness prevailed in the office of the prosecutor. Elliot Peters a lawyer acting for Swartz was scathing of that office:
There was such rigidity with the people we were dealing with ... I couldn’t find anyone in that office to talk about proportionality and humanity. It was driven by a desire to turn this into a significant case, so that some prosecutor could put it in his portfolio.
After his death Carmen Ortiz released a statement expressing her sorrow but which quickly moved to exculpate both her and fellow prosecutors, claiming that they accepted there was no evidence against Swartz that he acted out of financial greed and for that reason were only seeking a light sentence. The writer Mike Masnick rubbished this as ‘totally bogus ... complete hogwash’, pointing out that time after time prosecutors piled on more charges which brought the potential time he faced in jail from anything up to 50 years.
With the NSA mass surveillance being exposed some months after the death of Aaron Swartz, it can hardly shock us to learn that in the struggle for civil liberties against state encroachment Swartz is being compared to Edward Snowdon. His death has deprived that struggle of one of its most crucial assets.