“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent”, wrote Aaron Swartz, on his personal website in January 2007. Six years after that, on January 11th, the computer genius took his own life in his Brooklyn apartment. He was being prosecuted by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the police, as well as having been arrested and accused of illegally downloading millions of documents from the online research group JSTOR with the intent of making them freely available.
Swartz believed that these articles from academic journals should be made openly available to the public, free of charge. This computer programmer, political organiser and internet activist had long been involved in the struggle for the freedom of information and played a leading role in the “hacktivist” circles. He developed the RSS web feed format and the popular site Reddit, co-founded Demand Progress, lead the internet citizen movement against SOPA and collaborated in the activist site, Avaaz.org, among other accomplishments. If convicted he could have faced a 35-year sentence for the 13 felony charges he had been accused of, even though he never released any of the JSTOR articles.
Now Aaron Swartz is gone and his demise has revived the debate of freedom of information in the USA and all over the world. Other names from similar cases come back to the media: Jonathan James, Tarek Mehanna and Jeffey Sterlin to name a few. As with many others, Aaron considered that academic inquiry is founded on the free exchange of ideas and, arguing that since most of the journals’ authors do not get paid for the articles they write, these articles should therefore be freely available to the civil society in order to contribute to its development and progress.
His family, friends and admirers are holding the authorities responsible for Aaron’s suicide. They cannot understand their “prosecutorial overreach” and their heedless procedure knowing that he had long suffered from depression. Several advocates for the freedom of information, from politicians, journalists, professors to full-time activists have since risen their voices in newspapers, blogs, television shows and radio programs to criticize the authorities’ performance and the unfairness of some laws governing computer crime.
Although this controversy is not new, Aaron Swartz’s case gives new strength to the movement that claims a reform of this laws that criminalize all sorts of actions that do not seem like they should be crime. Aaron’s aim when he downloaded all those JSTOR articles was not personal profit, but to provide internet users with quality information. Could that really be considered as a criminal act of civil disobedience?
One of the first things students learn in history, politics or media studies courses is that freedom of information is one of the basis of democratic societies. One might think that the internet and the new social media are reinforcing this freedom and, especially, the participation of civil society, but sometimes it seems completely the opposite. China, Russia and many Arab dictatorships may be a good example of how the government can and does exercise censorship on the web, but our western societies are not as we think, a bastion of democratic transparency. Under the category of “classified information”, our governments hide from citizens all kinds of data, from political corruption evidence to police or military abuse. How is this supposed to fit in our free, democratic system?
Some people think that Swartz was not prosecuted for what he did, but because of what he represented. He was suspected to have collaborated with WikiLeaks, and so he could have become a collateral victim of the American government’s crusade against the organisation. As was stated by the blog ThinkProgress, he would have faced a harder punishment than what most murderers, bank robbers and child pornographers get on average if he had lived to be convicted of the charges against him. His only crime was downloading millions of documents, while never actually making them public.
So, what is then reason why American authorities went on with this exacerbated prosecution? One might think that there is more behind Aaron Swartz’s case than just a simple struggle for copyrights protection. One might think that he was involved in something more serious. As an advocate for WikiLeaks he was not precisely well-considered by the government, but rather someone that should be put under close surveillance.
Unfortunately, the debate that these cases suggest is too complicated to be simplified to a game between the goodies and the villains. Sometimes even both parts may be partially right. In the name of security and protection of private data some people might get an excessive power over information, breaking some of our basic democratic principle. In the name of freedom of information, “hacktivism” might go too far on its way to combat a non-collaborative government.
Whatever the solution to this problem may be, it is not acceptable any more that tragedies like that of Aaron Swartz keep on taking place in our society. After his death, JSTOR has opened up access to its journals for individuals who register. At the end, his aim was accomplished, but the price he had to pay was too high. Internet activists will nevertheless remember him, and his family already created a memorial site for him, which says: “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.”