This article, as written by me and a friend, appeared in The Hindu on January 16, 2013.
In July, 2011, Aaron Swartz was indicted by the district of Massachusetts for allegedly stealing more than 4.8 million articles from the online academic literature repository JSTOR via the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was charged with, among others, wire-fraud, computer-fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture.
After paying a $100,000-bond for release, he was expected to stand trial in early 2013 to face the charges and, if found guilty, a 35-year prison sentence and $1 million in fines. More than the likelihood of the sentence, however, what rankled him most was that he was labelled a “felon” by his government.
On January 11, Friday, Swartz’s fight, against information localisation as well as the label given to him, ended when he hung himself in his New York apartment. He was only 26. At the time of his death, JSTOR did not intend to press charges and had decided to release 4.5 million of its articles into the public domain. It seems as though this crime had no victims.
But, he was so much more than an alleged thief of intellectual property. His life was a perfect snapshot of the American Dream. But the nature of his demise shows that dreams are not always what they seem.
At the age of 14, Swartz became a co-author of the RSS (Rich Site Summary) 1.0 specification, now a widely used method for subscribing to web content. He went on to attend Stanford University, dropped out, founded a popular social news website and then sold it — leaving him a near millionaire a few days short of his 20th birthday.
A recurring theme in his life and work, however, were issues of internet freedom and public access to information, which led him to political activism. An activist organisation he founded campaigned heavily against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill, and eventually killed it. If passed, SOPA would have affected much of the world’s browsing.
At a time that is rife with talk of American decline, Swartz’s life reminds us that for now, the United States still remains the most innovative society on Earth, while his death tells us that it is also a place where envelope pushers discover, sometimes too late, that the line between what is acceptable and what is not is very thin.
The charges that he faced, in the last two years before his death, highlight the misunderstood nature of digital activism — an issue that has lessons for India. For instance, with Section 66A of the Indian IT Act in place, there is little chance of organising an online protest and blackout on par with the one that took place over the SOPA bill.
While civil disobedience and street protests usually carry light penalties, why should Swartz have faced long-term incarceration just because he used a computer instead? In an age of Twitter protests and online blackouts, his death sheds light on the disparities that digital activism is subjected to.
His act of trying to liberate millions of scholarly articles was undoubtedly political activism. But had he undertaken such an act in the physical world, he would have faced only light penalties for trespassing as part of a political protest. One could even argue that MIT encouraged such free exchange of information — it is no secret that its campus network has long been extraordinarily open with minimal security.
What then was the point of the public prosecutors highlighting his intent to profit from stolen property worth “millions of dollars” when Swartz’s only aim was to make them public as a statement on the problems facing the academic publishing industry? After all, any academic would tell you that there is no way to profit off a hoard of scientific literature unless you dammed the flow and then released it per payment.
In fact, JSTOR’s decision to not press charges against him came only after they had reclaimed their “stolen” articles — even though Laura Brown, the managing director of JSTOR, had announced in September 2011, that journal content from 500,000 articles would be released for free public viewing and download. In the meantime, Swartz was made to face 13 charges anyway.
Assuming the charges are reasonable at all, his demise will then mean that the gap between those who hold onto information and those who would use it is spanned only by what the government thinks is criminal. That the hammer fell so heavily on someone who tried to bridge this gap is tragic. Worse, long-drawn, expensive court cases are becoming roadblocks on the path towards change, especially when they involve prosecutors incapable of judging the difference between innovation and damage on the digital frontier. It doesn’t help that it also neatly avoids the aura of illegitimacy that imprisoning peaceful activists would have for any government.
Today, Aaron Swartz is dead. All that it took to push a brilliant mind over the edge was a case threatening to wipe out his fortunes and ruin the rest of his life. In the words of Lawrence Lessig, American academic activist, and his former mentor at the Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Centre for Ethics: “Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics of our time. That begins with one word: Shame.”