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Take heed, pirates: In memoriam of Aaron Swartz

Swartz was a technological genius. Among other achievements, he built a user-edited encyclopedia website before Wikipedia and was a co-creator of RSS, all by age 14. He worked on the foundations of Reddit, which has become one of the internet’s largest places of user-exchange, and according to friends, he worked tirelessly to make as much information as he could free to the public, including moving much of the U.S.’s law cases into public domain.

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By Beau O’Neill (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: January 23, 2013

The anonymously-written text commonly attributed to the young web-entrepreneur Aaron Swartz, the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto ends with a call to action:

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks … ”

This is just what the 26-year-old Swartz tried to do in the fall of 2010, in a basement of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He downloaded millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, the familiar database used frequently by me and almost every other privileged post-secondary student, to a laptop linked to one of the institute’s computers. But JSTOR caught on, and so did the feds. On Friday, January 11, facing millions of dollars in fines and years in prison for 13 criminal counts ranging from computer fraud to breaking and entering, Swartz committed suicide.

Swartz was a technological genius. Among other achievements, he built a user-edited encyclopedia website before Wikipedia and was a co-creator of RSS, all by age 14. He worked on the foundations of Reddit, which has become one of the internet’s largest places of user-exchange, and according to friends, he worked tirelessly to make as much information as he could free to the public, including moving much of the U.S.’s law cases into public domain.

This was a tragic and premature end to a man who held moral convictions alongside skill and intelligence; he fought for the liberation of knowledge and information in a time where the world’s powers worship legal convictions uber alles. Swartz was still ascending – he had not yet plateaued.

JSTOR had asked the courts to drop the action concerning them, and asked the government to stop their action as well. But the prosecution went on. I’d like to read the articles from any quarterly that is worth a man’s life. Currently, there is no difference in the law between distributing electronically accessed material for personal gain and doing it for the edification and liberation of the public. This case shows there should be.

There is a tendency for those in the armchair to intensify non-existent links between historic events, and it may be that we are missing much from the distance to the man’s inner life. But there is still something to be had from recognizing that today—in a country Canada regards as a peer—a man would rather die than face the fate awaiting him for trying to disseminate scholasticism. I see in Swartz’s decision a reflection of Socrates’s drinking of the hemlock: he lived by the law, and so would suffer as it imperiously wished.

I have to look now at the databases provided by our own institute of higher learning with a whole new respect for the system of it all. The amount of time saved by not having to leaf through dusty, stained journals; being able to log on at home via my own computer, to use the search feature to find the salient points I’m looking for, these are but the adjunct benefits attached to having access to these articles that connect me to the celestial order of academia.

In 18th century England, among other practices, pirates charged with high-seas crimes were hanged and their bodies were left on display in public for several days. This was both an insult to the pirate’s corporal body, and, more importantly, a warning to those who viewed it. This is how the laws are treating the criminals of intellectual property laws. A Calgary man was fined $60,000 for sharing two adult movies on a torrent site. A man from Boston faces $675,000 for sharing a music album. This must be similar to the treatment of pirates in Boston in the 1720s.

On June 30, 1704, pirate captain John Quelch met his end on the gallows. His penultimate words were, “I am not afraid of death.” Aaron Swartz was treated like a pirate though he was, by all accounts, the furthest thing from one. It’s regretful that he had to repeat history in such a manner.

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