Wed, 16 Jan 2013 01:48:05 +0000
I didn't know Aaron Swartz. But I'd like to talk about what drove him to create, and to end his life.
Aaron Swartz, by all accounts, was a young brillant man who was dedicated to your digital freedom. He raised the ire of the U.S. goverment by first (legally) making much of the proceedings of U.S. courts publicly available. The U.S. government isn't allowed to copyright its own products, and thus court proceedings are yours. But the government has put them behind a paywall called PACER. Swartz was one of the first to pay for data from PACER, in bulk, and then make it publicly available. FBI investigated him and eventually concluded there was nothing to prosecute.
It's striking how similar his actions were to things I've done. About 10 years ago I "freed" maps produced by the U.S. Census that were legally in the public domain but were only distributed on CDs that cost $1500. I paid the money and put them on my own web site. If anyone ever thought to prosecute me it didn't happen, and some anonymous technician at the Census kindly sent me updates for free for years afterward which I would put online. Now, the Census distributes that data on its own web site and I don't have to.
Two years ago, Swartz apparently physically penetrated a system of the online scientific journal aggregator JSTOR, intending to place the journal contents online. This led to prosecution originated by JSTOR and MIT (which owned the physical premises) and his arrest and prosecution. JSTOR later asked the government to drop charges but MIT did not. Swartz' justification was that the research articles were publicly funded, the authors weren't paid, and those articles really should have been public property.
What nobody online seems to be accepting is that Swartz action - no matter how well motivated - was a crime, and he should indeed have paid some penalty for it. That's not the way we agitate for reform successfully - the peaceful political process is better. Obviously, Swartz' effort was intended as "civil disobedience" to shed light on a cause. However, the 30 years asked for by the prosecution was way excessive. Rapists get less time than that. The excessive time is a means that the federal government uses to coerce offenders into plea barganing so that the government can avoid the expense of a trial.
About 10 years ago, I too tried (unsuccessfully) to commit civil disobedience in the name of a similar cause. It was a demonstration aimed at DMCA, in which I intended to break DMCA onstage by simply placing a DVD that I bought in Europe in a zone-free DVD player that would allow me to play it in the U.S. - a crime under U.S. law to this day. It got me released from HP a month after the company convinced me not to perform the demonstration.
Like Swartz, I care a lot about these issues. And I think I know what drove him to end his life.
I don't think it was the prosecution, per se. It was the fact that he was working on the behalf of a population that for the most part don't care about their digital rights and do nothing to maintain their own digital freedom. So they didn't give a damn about what Swartz was doing for them, and the trouble he was in for it, until he was dead. Did you ever hear his name before then?
The degree of denseness of the general public in regard to digital freedom issues is frustrating for evangelists like Swartz and myself. Sure, half of the members left Instagram in one month. But those millions of people never thought, until then, that placing their data with Instagram was a bad idea. And of course Facebook is the same thing - I use it as an advertising channel because so many of you choose to be on that system, and not one bit of my personal life will ever be there - putting that in the hands of a corporation is beyond stupid. And the vast acceptance of Apple products despite your total lack of control over them is more of the same. It's hard to be an evangelist on behalf of the rights of people so dumb.
Suicide isn't the way to deal with this, and whatever depression Swartz had that drove him to it should have been treated. I love my wife and kid and life in general, and I'm not going there. But I can see what drove him.