Aaron Swartz, Canary in a Coal Mine for the Information Cartel

“We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion…” Quinn Norton, a close friend of Aaron Swartz wrote these reminiscences in a moving goodbye note to the young internet activist who committed suicide on Friday inside his New York apartment. With the news Aaron Swartz had died, it was as if the whole internet mourned. The story made it to the front page of Spiegel Online, Germany’s  largest online news outlet. By Saturday evening, a Google News search on Aaron Swartz netted more than 4,460 results. Reactions to his death ricocheted all over online. His life had touched millions of people, those who know him personally and those who didn’t. It didn’t seem to matter. Aaron Swartz had made a deep mark in the world and the loss was felt by millions.

Nobody really can tell for sure what caused him to take his own life. He reportedly suffered from depression. His trial was scheduled in April for allegations of illegally downloading millions of academic journal articles. He was facing multiple felony charges and if convicted he would face up to 35 years in prison and owe over a million dollars in fines.

On Saturday, the Swartz family and his partner released an official statement. It read that Aaron’s death was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” There is no doubt that the federal government’s aggressive prosecution contributed to his death.

In his short 26 year life, Swartz had accomplished so much. When he was 14, he helped write the RSS specifications. At 16, he helped found Creative Commons, making it easier technically and legally for people to share online. At 18, he was the only beta-tester on John Gruber’s Markdown tool for writing webpages using a simple plain-text syntax. At the age of 20, he co-founded Reddit and then later at 24 years old, he launched Demand Progress, dedicated to improving civil and rights and to government reform. And perhaps most significantly, he was instrumental in the defeat of the internet censorship bill SOPA.

His writing in 2008, ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto‘ might outline his personal creed best:

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends. Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends. But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy …. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past.

He stood up for the culture of sharing and advocated for the free flow of information and equal access to knowledge. It is this profound commitment to these values that prompted him to download millions of academic journal articles from JSTOR, which caused him to become the subject of a federal investigation.

An expert witness for Swartz wrote in detail, clarifying misinformation surrounding his plight and this alleged crime. He stated how downloading of journal articles is not an offense worth 35 yeas in jail:

Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public. He was an intelligent young man who found a loophole that would allow him to download a lot of documents quickly. This loophole was created intentionally by MIT and JSTOR, and was codified contractually in the piles of paperwork turned over during discovery.

A Harvard professor and Swartz’s friend, Lawrence Lessig called out the prosecutor’s bullying and overcharges brought upon him:

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property’ Aaron had ‘stolen,’ we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars’ …. the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’

The government’s prosecution of Swartz brings up a serious concern. Timothy B. Lee, contributing writer for Forbes Magazine described how it is a sign that America is losing “the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world’s innovators and misfits” and that this country has become intolerant to idealists and those who rebel against authority. He reminded how, “A generation ago, we hailed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a hero. Today, our government throws the book at whistleblowers for leaking much less consequential information.”

Whistleblowers are canaries in a coal mine, signaling the decay of culture and an urgent need for deep social and political change. In a sense, Swartz was like a whistleblower who exposed the wrongheadedness of a culture driven by sterile commercial interests and greed. In the summer of 2012, Swartz spoke about the overreach of the US government in shutting down Megaupload, a HongKong based company that allows file storage and viewing. He spoke about the possible extradition of the founder, Kim Dotcom and ridiculousness of the legal premise and hypocrisy of the FBI. In retrospect, it appears in his case Swartz was being harassed by the US government, seemingly driven by a similar agenda.

The investigation of Aaron Swartz came off as a witch-hunt. The government’s trumped up charges were a sign that they were desperately trying to make an example of this young digital activist. JSTOR themselves were not interested in pressing charges.

A corporate culture of insidious ownership and control uses the law to disguise exploitative practices with sophisticated concepts of ‘copyright’ and ‘intellectual property’. It justifies this culture of illegitimate plunder with legalistic rhetoric by framing the natural act of sharing as a crime and calling it ‘piracy’, as if one is stealing something. Swartz fought for all of us, reminding us that true copyright is our right to copy and share, not to own and monopolize knowledge. To the corporate mindset, he appeared as a threat to their culture and became a target for retaliation by the information cartel.

Like so many whistleblowers, Aaron was bullied, mistreated and in the end crushed by an empire of greed. In a sense, he was broken down by the corporate state, a culture that punishes sharing and rewards hoarding and that glorifies war and violence.

The relentless persecution of many brilliant activists has become a pattern with the US government. Julian Assange, who has been fighting for public’s right to know and doing what the Press is supposed to do; to check and balance those in power is treated as a villain, made into an enemy of the state. He was under house arrest and now stuck in an Ecuadorian Embassy despite being granted asylum.

Alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning acted on his conscience, which told him information should be free. He is a true soldier who fought to bring information about war crimes and the dirty dealings behind closed doors out into the public domain where it belongs. Yet, he has been detained without due process more than years and tortured. He is being treated like a spy when prosecutors in the court-martial during pretrial hearings this past week cited an 1863 case, implicating an offense of ‘aiding the enemy’.

Jeremy Hammond, alleged hacker for Stratfor emails has been in jail over 300 days without trial. He was denied bail by the judge whose refused to recuse herself despite a blatant conflict of interest. Here is someone who poses no danger to the community being treated like a terrorist.

Similar criminalization and attacks have been carried out on racial minorities for a long time. This goes all the way back to the genocide of indigenous people, exploiting non-white cultures or trying to erase them; labeling blacks with a stigma of subhuman and demonizing those of Muslim descent with a pretext of terrorism that continues to this day. Now, with laws like NDAA, noone can deny how this culture of control through fear has become the new norm.

On Jan 11, 2013, a bright light burned out. Aaron Swartz was not only a prodigy. He was a genius with technical skills and articulated political thoughts. But more importantly, he was a thoroughly good person. Many who were touched by his life noted that he was always so willing to help people. “What can I do? I can build it. I can solve it. I can make it possible”. All of his work was based on that simple yet extraordinary generous heart.

“He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.”

The words from those who are closest to him best describe who he was. Perhaps that is how we can remember him.

Aaron Swartz was a canary in a coal mine; a mighty hero of the open web, yet also sensitive and fragile. He might have endured his inner struggle in darkness to show us how we are losing what is truly important to us. He did this through the way he lived his life.

We have lost this amazing human being, yet his message lives on as his inspiration goes viral on the internet. It is now the responsibility of those who are inspired by this selfless soul to join the battle that he had been fighting. Perhaps one important lesson we all can learn from this is that we should not have to hold funerals for young heroes like Aaron but instead we need a funeral for the culture of control that seeks to restrict our inherent right to be human.

Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is an essayist and author of WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate: History Is Happening (Libertarian Books, 2018). Find her on twitter @nozomimagine. Read other articles by Nozomi.