Activist’s death puts internet freedom on the agenda

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Byron Clark

Internet commons activist Aaron Swartz has died by suicide several weeks out from a trial that could have seen him facing 35 years in prison and over a million dollars in fines. Despite being only 26 years old when he died, Tim Burners-Lee, inventor of the hypertext technology that makes the World Wide Web possible, commented that “we have lost a mentor, a wise elder”. Like Burners-Lee, Swartz had made important contributions to the sharing of information though modern technology, helping to develop the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) standard which allows users to subscribe to ‘feeds’ from websites, making the consumption of news and other information easier and facilitating ‘podcasts’ as a new form of distribution of audio content to subscribers. 

After Reddit, a content sharing website he was involved in at the early stages was bought by Wired and Conde Nast, Swartz engineered his own dismissal and got paid out enough to live on for several years, going on to became what blogger and author Cory Doctorow described as “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.”

Like many in his field, Swartz was a strong advocate of the ‘hacker ethic’ “information wants to be free”. With law professor Lawrence Lessig he helped develop the Creative Commons licencing system, and founded Demand Progress, a digital rights group that played an instrumental role in defeating the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) a law which would have made it easier to shut down websites accused of violating copyright protections

It was later, more nefarious activities that landed Swartz in legal trouble. He had written a computer program to make freely available court documents that the US government was charging for, by using library credentials. He used a similar process to download an enormous amount of academic journal articles from the JSTOR database after gaining access to the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

While the massive entertainment industries come under constant criticism for their influence over governments in the realm of copyright and intellectual property legislation, academic publishing is probably the largest rort in the business. Journal subscriptions cost as much as $40,000 a year. Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library explained the situation to the Guardian last year;

“We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free, and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices.”

Many university libraries pay more than half of their journal budgets to just three publishers Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. Academics have for several years now been moving toward more open-access publishing, at times encouraged by universities struggling to pay journal subscriptions. A legacy of Aaron Swartz will be the growth and raised awareness of open access.

Academics have begun promoting their open access articles on Twitter using the hashtag #pdftribute paying tribute to Swartz by carrying on his work to make information freely available. One individual posted over 18,000 scientific journal articles to file sharing site The Pirate Bay. The articles, from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society were all published prior to 1923 making them public domain, yet they were previously not freely available. As of this writing the 33 gigabyte collection can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/Uey7AZ

In the days following Swartz’s death hacktivist group Anonymous defaced the website of MIT, leaving a message reading in part “We call 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.”

Swartz made no secret about suffering from depression, he blogged about his brief time working at Reddit after its shift to the Wired offices “The first day I showed up here, I simply couldn’t take it. By lunch time I had literally locked myself in a bathroom stall and started crying.” Cory Doctorow wrote after his death;

“He always seemed somehow in search of mentors, and none of those mentors ever seemed to match the impossible standards he held them (and himself) to. This was cause for real pain and distress for Aaron, and it was the root of his really unfortunate pattern of making high-profile, public denunciations of his friends and mentors…I think we all knew that, whatever the disappointment that Aaron expressed about us, it also reflected a disappointment in himself and the world.”

His mother told Hacker News, “Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful.” Not everyone in Aaron’s position would have taken such drastic measures, but were he not put in that position Aaron Swartz would likely still be alive today. Given his intellect and commitment to the causes he supported, the world would be better because of it. Taking a lead from figures such as Swarz, socialists must stand for common ownership of information.

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