Monday, February 11, 2013

A story all internet users need to learn about: the hero that was Aaron Swartz

On January 11, 2013, a man my age, twenty-six, named Aaron Swartz took his own life. I believe it important to write something about this person as many outside the insular online community may not know about him, or gleaned past headlines. What happened to Aaron is nothing short of a despicable tragedy and we as a ‘modern’ society are no better off for it. Aaron Swartz is a stand-alone example of how one person can affect change, how one person can fight injustice and backwards policies.

Everybody who uses the internet should know who Aaron Swartz was.

Aaron is partly responsible for things that you, as an internet user, take for granted every single time you boot up the internet machine. Aside from having a hand in creating RSS, you also have Aaron to thank as one of the people out there fighting privacy-invading legislation, fighting for a free internet, and fighting for access to information.

SOPA, the brain-dead “piracy” and copyright bill introduced to US Congress on October 26, 2011, garnered the collective ire of the internet...eventually. If it were not for the actions of people like Aaron, public awareness of this bill would have been near zero and the massive corporate power behind it would have seen it pass. Aaron’s words from his (must-watch) Freedom to Connect speech on SOPA:

So I did what you always do when you’re a little guy facing a terrible future with long odds and little hope of success. I started an online petition. 

I called all my friends and we stayed up all night setting up a website for this new group, Demand Progress, with an online petition opposing this noxious bill, and I sent it to a few friends.

This petition quickly reached the minimum number to provoke a response from the White House, and kept going to  garner hundreds of thousands of signatures and a platform for futher action. The outreach was nothing short of incredible.

Through generating and growing this awareness he did something far more dangerous to the government and the elite who abuse power. In the big picture he brought awareness to the realities of government-imposed limitations on the internet to a wider audience that extended far past Congress’ House chamber: the world payed attention. No government in any developed country would be able to push through legislation about ‘piracy’ or ‘copyright.’ Mere weeks into SOPA’s wake on February 12, 2012, Vic Toews tabled Bill C-30, the “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” which required mandatory ‘back doors’ from ISPs to let the government access an individual’s information, whenever they wished, without a warrant.  Canadians outright rejected it; C-30 was shelved a few months later after the now-famous remark from Toews in defense of the bill, “either stand with us, or the child pornographers.” A classic reaction to undermine and demonize those in opposition to sweeping attacks on civil liberties or privacies.

Aaron was an information activist. He believed that certain information belonged in the hands of the public, for the sake of people being as informed as they can about their government. His most public civil disobedience acts are ones that fight needless government-imposed limitations to information, which should make him an automatic hero to everyone who uses the internet or wishes to inform themselves on how their government works. The courage needed to do these things is commendable on its own. The things he fought for are important, as well as a sign of our times. Digitization is here; these things should be available to us, not locked away or of difficulty to access.

To that end, Aaron did things such as download and publish the entire US Library of Congress bibliographic dataset, which said library actually charges a fee to access. A bit later he downloaded US Federal Court documents, which at the time cost 8 cents/page to access. He later learned he was the subject of an FBI investigation, which he of course had to file a Freedom of Information request (about himself) to confirm.

There is no question that such documents should be publicly available, even searchable by electronic database. Creating a system in which citizens have to pay for government documents, means that documents essential to a healthy and functioning democracy are behind a paywall.
While at MIT he accessed JSTOR. For anyone who has been enrolled at a University recently, you have probably used JSTOR. For those who haven’t: It is an online database of academic journal articles, some dating back over 100 years, from all genres of academic study. The university/college you are enrolled at pays JSTOR to provide access to their students, you can usually access with a student number and password. If you are not in the university system, you are essentially shut out from this massive database unless of course, you also pay a fee. 

I used this system for many years while at the University of Manitoba. Using it all those years ago, it bothered me that such an enormous database of accomplishment, intellect, and collective knowledge of the human race is not available to the human race. Only to universities and anyone who pays their fee (a recent 2012 move allows you to read but not download three free articles per two weeks). This information is not on Google, a lot is also often too specific or obscure to be on Wikipedia. Since - leaving - university, I have been frustrated many times wanting to research or quote something (often environment or Lake Winnipeg-related) that I no longer have access to. As such, the following premise arises: if the point of academic research is to advance human understanding, then why is it not available to non-academics? Why is there an exclusive monopoly on academic information that can benefit everybody?

That was me thinking, sitting on campus about eight years ago trying to write a paper. This is also what Aaron was thinking when he wrote the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008:

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. 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.

With legal access to JSTOR through MIT, Aaron downloaded (but did not publish, or make available) over 4 million JSTOR academic articles. He was legally entitled to this access, and entitled to download these articles through MIT. For this “crime,” he found himself in the cross hairs of US Federal Prosecutors.

JSTOR, the ‘victim’ of this heinous ‘crime,’ did not press charges against Aaron. Undeterred, Federal US Attorney Carmin Ortiz proceeded anyway, alleging that Aaron ‘stole’ this information, which he had free access to. The latest court documents show that Federal Prosecutors had levelled 13 felonies against Aaron, which carried a possible sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines...all for ‘stealing’ information Aaron legally had access to, and that JSTOR did not want to pursue criminal charges against. 

On Wednesday, January 9 the prosecutors had rejected a plea from Aaron’s defense for no jail time. The following commentary from the prosecutors was quoted in the Wall Street Journal:

[The defense was told] Mr. Swartz would need to plead guilty to every count, and the government would insist on prison time.

Two days later, he was found dead.

In an embarrassing Twitter outburst, the Prosecutor’s husband (an IBM executive) lashed out at critics of his wife, stating that they “blame others for [Aaron’s] death and make no mention of the 6-month offer." 

Well, there was a 6-month offer. But the mere notion that anybody should spend 6 months in prison for  “stealing” free documents and having a criminal record as a felon (you cannot vote in the US with a record as a felon), is beyond absurd. 

At the hands of an overzealous government hell-bent on going after ‘hackers,’ Aaron met a match he could not beat. Make no mistake that the growing culture inside the US Government of branding ‘hackers’ as evil criminals that must be brought down and punished contributed to this case. After initially being arrested for downloading JSTOR articles, Swartz’s case was taken over by the Secret Service. Eyebrow raising, isn’t it? Secret Service, for downloading too many free academic articles?

One only needs to look at recent hacker cases to see that this extreme overreach, even as it relates to hackers who do not live in the US, are not US citizens, but that the US believes they have the jurisdiction to pursue. 

MegaUpload creator Kim Dotcom re-appeared in the media, a year after an FBI raid on his New Zealand home. The US subsequently attempted to extradite him on "racketeering" charges, since the NZ court doesn’t allow extradition for copyright violation. The NZ courts refused to hand him over. 

A two-year-old currently ongoing US Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange was only made public after people such as David House were called to testify and told the world about the investigation. House was subsequently the subject of federal surveillance. There are also several hackers being prosecuted for hacks into the National Security establishment that also have an air of dubiousness to them, including Jeremy Hammond, Jonathon James, and of course Bradley Manning. All of which face or faced incredibly long, harsh sentences. 

Often these sentences are trumped-up and exaggerated, with the goal not of indictment on all charges, but pressuring to accept a plea deal in which you are convicted of guilt and spend time in jail anyway. This was pointed out by Ruby on Rails creator David Heinemeier Hansson on Twitter;

DHH@dhhUnder the plea bargain regime, the prosecution is judge, jury, and, in Aaron's case, partial executioner. We must separate concerns again. 

DHH@dhhFirst rule of being in a hole: stop digging! Defending the 13 felony counts, 50 year max sentence, and the 6-month plea extortion is sick.

The prosecutor was focused on nailing a “hacker” and padding her resume with a lucrative conviction pleasing to the established political elite in Washington (potentially on the way to Massachusetts Governorship). Aaron’s past activities at the US Library of Congress and US Federal Court, as well as repeated FOIA requests about Bradley Manning’s treatment no doubt made him a target. No citizen of a free country should live in fear for engaging in politics and at worst, engaging in minor (and harmless) civil disobedience as a form of activism.

It is clear the tactics used by prosecutors against people such as Aaron are designed for one thing and one thing only: strong arming a population into submission. Intimidation on an abusive scale to literally scare people away from challenging power centres. This is a dangerous and insidious development that does nothing to advance the values we hold as supposedly free and democratic people and does nothing to portray our institutions as we would like. The point after all, is that our leaders and our government have checks on their power that we as citizens are supposed to be able to leverage. There is something seriously wrong when we become scared to access that leverage, and cannot depend on a court system to protect us. 

In death he has also shone a spotlight on the corrupt acts of the powerful prosecution team he faced: that an abuser of power seeked higher office, and set off another successful petition run that will hopefully see Carmen Ortiz and her office investigated. That petition easily received enough support to reach the required minimum to demand a response from the White House...just as Aaron’s petition demanded recoil action from the White House regarding SOPA.

Irony it seems, is not without a sense of - natural - justice. 

Aaron is and was a hero, a beacon of integrity in a corrupt and awful place we live in, in a time of mass political apathy, a time when people fear their jobs or careers for speaking the truth or challenging the powerful elite. Aaron did all that, for us, for everybody, for the public good.

If one is to look at Aaron’s life, what he accomplished, I am not sure how one can stand idly by with an attitude that injustices just happen, there is nothing you can do, accept it and move on. This is not a world anybody agrees is fair; why are so many complicit? Aaron demonstrated through SOPA that it is possible to defeat this evil we all face, if only we use our voices, our minds, and a belief to make things right. The evil of elite political immunity, the evil of politicians passing laws and policies at the behest of above-the-law executives, and the evil of government intrusion to your internet privacy.

For all the injustices Aaron successfully fought against, all the acts of civil disobedience that resulted in more access to information that people should have access to for free, for taking on Congress and defeating SOPA. Aaron single-handedly proved that one person can make a difference, that one person can stand up to injustice.

Aaron’s life, accomplishments and tenacity to challenge governments and institutions restriction of access to information is extraordinary

He's a hero to me.

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In the wake of Aaron’s death, a number of friends, colleagues, and activism projects done in his honour flooded the internet. These are all quite amazing...some of them are listed here for further reading.

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