Aaron Swartz, being brave and taking risks

Posted by Corin on January 14, 2013 in Commentary |

I have spent a bit of this evening reading about Aaron Swartz, what he achieved, what he was accused of doing and how people felt about him, so I thought I would try to note my thoughts down here.

Let’s begin, at the beginning.   I had no idea who Aaron Swartz was this morning.  I had never heard of him.  Yet, I became conscious that over the past 24 hours my psyche had been touched by stories of his death.  I came to realise during the day that there was something going on here that I need to know about.  Then my friend Jenica Rogers posted a link on her Facebook to this article, “Library values and the growing scholarly digital divide: In memoriam Aaron Swartz” and I plunged head first into this terrible loss.

The fact that I had never heard of him, means you won’t be reading from me a lament on the impact he made on my life and how I will miss him.  However there is a beautiful one of those here, “My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved“, which is probably one of the loveliest pieces of writing I have ever read.

The fact that I had never heard of him, means you won’t be reading an in-depth discussion on the case and what the implications were for him and the rights or wrongs of it.  If you want to read more about this, I suggest you go here, “Aaron Swartz’s Death Is A Tragedy — And There Are Some Questions That Need To Be Answered”.

What I do want to do is just acknowledge this individual, whom I had never heard of, and what he did.

When I first moved to Auckland in 2005, I got a job working for Auckland City Council.  I was their Web Business Advisor.  It was my first real job outside of libraries and I wasn’t brilliant at it to be honest, I was just ok.   What I achieved in that year I held the role was average.  However, the one achievement I am proud of from that time is the integration of R.S.S. feeds on the council website for some content which was regularly updated.  It was immediately successful, getting good hits and coincided with an increase in traffic to the site.  Guess who co-authored R.S.S?  Yup Aaron Swartz.  The guy was 14 when he did it.  The very successful Reddit social news website was also co-developed by him after one of his startup companies was merged with it.

Later he was involved in the development of Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons copyright system, and was a key person in fighting the dreadful SOPA which the U.S. Government were forced to drop.  At a time when I am spending a bit of time thinking about the TPP and the horrible effect it will have on freedom in New Zealand and creativity, his achievements around SOPA are encouraging.   Aaron Swartz died at 26.  At 26 he had made more of an impact on the world than most.  At 26 he still had so much left to give.

And so to the act that started the last chapter in his life.  There appears to be no doubt that Aaron Swartz placed a server in a cupboard at MIT and harvested a huge amount of scholarly articles from JSTOR.  Why he did this and why the U.S. Attorney who was prosecuting him went to such lengths to lay the maximum charges we may never know.  Swartz had access to the articles via Harvard, he did not need to steal them.

Swartz fought to stop censorship and the restriction of access to information that should be freely available.  He believed in the power of the internet to share information, enable people and change the way we behave.  The U.S. Attorney represents the government and through them the interests of the country in enabling businesses to succeed.  Given the JSTOR had already said it did not want to press charges, one could wonder why the prosecution continued and certainly at the level it did.  Obviously there was something more at stake here or bigger powers at play.  I cannot help but wonder at the parallels to the Kim Dotcom case here in New Zealand, although I have no desire to put the two individuals in the same field.  Aaron Swartz is a far more agreeable individual in my mind.

What I think we can be sure of is that the voracity with which Swartz was pursued reeks of big business interests, and lobbying.  I can only assume that Swartz, like some others who are active in challenging the status quo of copyright law was targeted because of the threat he posed to the traditional publishing model and the profits that lie therein.   Swartz dared to and chose to speak out and be activist against what he saw as wrong.  Sadly, in doing so, he exposed himself to the prosecution, which in this sad case led to the taking of his own life.

The prosecution cannot be totally blamed for Swartz’s suicide.  He was a long term sufferer of depression and it would appear that this along with the stress of a long running, expensive and ultimately destroying court battle was more than he could take.  What I think is sad, is that this young man, undoubtably a genius, who believed in the rights of all of us to access information as and when we need it, lost his life because of it.

Why I am writing this rather rambling blog post is because I admire Aaron Swartz.  I admire his bravery.  That he was willing to take risks.  That he was willing to stand up for what he believed in.  Not all of us can do this, not all of us manage to have that skill at 46, let alone 26.  And Aaron may not even have thought of himself as brave.  I am put in mind of a conversation I had with Jenica Rogers where she talked about calling out the American Chemical Society and their charging and what that was like.  She commented to me, “I was not brave, I was doing my job”.  That to me marks someone who understands what they stand for and what they are supposed to do.  That is someone I can admire for strength.  Strength that I don’t always have myself.  I suspect Aaron Swartz had that strength too.

Aaron Swartz was not a criminal felon and he certainly was not an evil man.  He took a calculated risk to make a point and in this case it did not pay off.  Rest in peace Aaron Swartz.  Though you will never know it, I suspect your passing will mark the beginning of another chapter in the demise of the current copyright law and the control by business interests of the information we all have a right to access.

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