The Internet has proven itself, over and over, as a tool that gives the untamed masses the means of democratic action, consciousness-raising, dissent, and influence-peddling — with votes and public opinion, not money, being the capital that is leveraged — to rival the largest lobbies.
And the Internet has also proven itself, in escalating struggles over the past few years, as a battleground on which governments and vested interests wish to rein in the potential for public ferment; to punish those who would bring to light questionable or even nefarious doings of our government “in our name” but without our knowledge; to establish restrictions on use, sharing and allowable content; and even to develop the infamous “kill switch” that would give the government the means to just shut the whole thing down, purportedly to protect us from cyberterrorism but also enabling the powers that be to immediately quash dissent and block any communications that the government deems dangerous or undesirable.
Aaron Swartz, who was being prosecuted and was facing potentially years in jail for liberating knowledge from behind the JSTOR servers at M.I.T., has committed suicide at age 26. Aaron’s legendary tech heroism was launched when, as a prodigal teen, he co-authored the RSS technology that gave us control over our meta-newsstream by empowering us to aggregate and filter in the form of headlines and summaries almost all content published on the Internet. He went on to become an architect and developer of the code base for the Creative Commons system of licensing that gave us a new legal framework for sharing our content, merged his Infogami wiki company with the social-news site Reddit to forge the popular platform for news sharing and commenting that it is today, and right up to the end he advocated passionately for, and worked hard to make us aware of and to protect, our rights as individuals “to connect.”
In recent years, Aaron was a major player in the squashing of SOPA/PIPA legislation that was intended to criminalize the simple act of sharing things over the Internet. I recommend watching this entire speech that Swartz gave in 2011 about the history of these Congressional bills and of the popular movement that buried the legislation. The speech was played in its entirety on Democracy Now! on Monday, January 13. WordPress apparently cannot handle embedding a link that jumps to a time code; slide the playhead to 4:20 to hear Swartz explain so clearly what the problem was with this legislation:
The thing is, while SOPA and PIPA died writhing in the aisles of Congress, it ain’t over yet. And the thing is, as much as technology in general and digital communications in particular give grassroots groups tools for effective organizing and for spreading ideas and for cross-pollinating and collaborating and all that good stuff, we must be open-eyed about the extent to which the government and the capitalistic plutocracy views the seething masses of us out here on the virtual plain as a horrifyingly free, uncontrolled threat. We are the Kent State students demonstrating on a virtual campus. We are separatists, or anarchists, or alternative candidates, or environmental guerrillas, or Occupy organizers, or whistleblowers, or even just plain-vanilla Democracy-loving soccer moms with a really strong idea for a petition, whose keyboards give us the means to build our forces, plan our actions and fight the powers of money and special interests with the power of civic will.
Thinkers from Swartz to Assange to Lessig to Morozov have been warning us in terms that some might dismiss as paranoid and exaggerated, that the ‘Net can make authoritarian governments even more powerful and repressive. There is truly the potential for a giant bait-and-switch unlike any repressive mechanism in the history of civilizations — let the radicals and free-thinkers and dissenters and organizers rely increasingly on digital communications and social networks to advance their causes and to connect to and grow their networks. First off, this makes us all sitting ducks for warrantless surveillance that has already been waged against us for years.
Next — as we move farther and farther away from “face meetings,” community rooms, and information mimeographed on real paper; as we cross the line out of the old physical spaces and in-person communications and real-time-and-space methodologies into territory that makes us 100% dependent on our mobile phones, on Twitter, on the right to register a domain and host content on a web server; as we entrust to “the cloud” (and thus render inaccessible when we are offline) more and more of our personal information, contact lists, event calendars, reading lists, account information and passwords, collaborative documents and other content developed to move groups we belong to forward in their missions — we leave ourselves wide open to having our hopes and dreams and work and ideas immediately and totally SHUT DOWN. Or, in a more insidious scenario, we leave ourselves open to being picked off one by one, sniper-style, in repressive actions that may not be perceived as totalitarian and fascistic until, well, until it’s too late.
Not only did Aaron Swartz see clearly what was happening, he devoted his short life to making us aware, and to developing tools and knowledge and momentum to fight the forces that would abridge our First Amendment rights and that would revoke the promise the Internet holds out as a springboard for human potential, for increased understanding and tolerance, for knowledge-sharing, for cementing our person-to-person and global connections in ways that threaten the status quo, the status quo that our human race so desperately needs to change.
Aaron undertook huge personal risk when he accessed M.I.T. servers and copied JSTOR documents, liberating them from an environment designed to restrict human access to knowledge based upon ability to pay, on membership in the right clubs, with the intention of making them available on P2P file sharing servers. And he was prosecuted for this action, with a vengeance that was surely out of proportion to his “crime.”
Even JSTOR declined to press charges. According to Lawrence Lessig in an interview on Democracy Now! in another segment on Swartz’s life and work, “I received an email from JSTOR four days before Aaron died, from the president of JSTOR, announcing, celebrating that JSTOR was going to release all of these journal articles to anybody around the world who wanted access—exactly what Aaron was fighting for.”
Yet the government never backed down from pursuing prosecution that could have cost Aaron Swartz dozens of years of incarceration and millions of dollars. In a reflection on his blog immediately in the wake of Swartz’s suicide, Lessig notes that to his mind, if Swartz was guilty of what the government claims, he was “if not legally wrong, morally wrong.” I am not up to the task of deciding and declaring whether I agree with Lessig on that point, but I do agree with his take on the ludicrous fervor with which the government went after Swartz, in some sort of post-Cablegate feeding frenzy:
POSTSCRIPT: And now, having posted this, it is probably time to bump up my task list the “Google divorce” I’ve been planning for some time but keep putting off. More on that another day, but, for now, “Thank you Aaron,” and also to many others out there on the shaky limb of Internet Freedom advocacy, for helping me become aware of the need for this sort of self-protective action.
So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?
Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.