Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity -Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013
Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity -Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

This past weekend open-access advocate and activist Aaron Swartz sadly took his own life. He was 26 years old.

Aaron accomplished more in his 26 years than most people do in a lifetime. At the age of 14 he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification (RSS is what powers the Planet3.0 blogs section). He became friends with Lawrence Lessig and worked on creative commons , and was a co-creator of Reddit. Afterwards he became more politically inclined helping to found groups like Demand Progress which played a large role in the internet SOPA protests last year (in which Planet3.0 went dark for a day)

In 2009 Swarts downloaded and released 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records(PACER) database. This database contains the case-law from US courts and Swartz didn’t think it was appropriate for the government to charge 8 cents per page. This action got him the attention of the FBI which investigated him but later closed the case without filing any charges.

It was in 2010 that Swartz’s activities became at least partially aligned with what Planet3.0 is trying to be a small part of: open access.

The general philosophy behind open access is that publicly funded research should be publicly available. But it is much more than an idea of fiscal accountability. Opening access to research is the only way we as a global community will be able to solve the world’s biggest problems.

The insurmountable subscription cost of high-end journals has effectively shut out many researchers worldwide. Having a large proportion of the international research community unable to access research results is like trying to untie a knot with one hand.

or as Jeff Jarvis puts it:

And Aaron Swartz has taught me that content must not be the end game for knowledge. Why does knowledge become an article in a journal—or that which fills a book or a publication—except for people to use it? And only when they use it does content become the tool it should be. Not using knowledge is an offense to it. If it cannot fly free beyond the confines of content, knowledge cannot reach its full value through collaboration, correction, inspiration, and use.

I’m not saying that content wants to be free. I am asking whether knowledge wants to be content.

In an attempt at guerrilla open access Swartz downloaded millions of journal articles from the JSTOR academic database. To do this he connected his laptop to the MIT network, which has access to the JSTOR database, and ran a simple python script that downloaded the journal articles. This time he was arrested and hit with a total of 13 felony charges for computer hacking and wire fraud, which if convicted would have landed Swartz with a sentence of more than 35 years (50 years by some accounts). It was this lawsuit which family and friends claim pushed Aaron over the edge.

While Swartz’s actions were clearly against the rules (technically against the terms of service of JSTOR), it is a stretch to call what Swartz did hacking. He didn’t break any authentication systems, or spoof authorization to access the JSTOR database (the network he was connected to had full access to JSTOR) and the python script he ran did the same thing that a web browser does when you tell it to save a file.

And while I can understand why some people will call what Aaron Swartz did as wrong, we really should acknowledge that open access to scientific research (often funded by taxpayers) is important, and that the current system that restricts access with paywalls is in many ways a relic that has been made obsolete by new technology. But we should also understand proportionality. I think Aaron’s friend Lawrence Lessig (as he often does) said it perfectly:

He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

One word, and endless tears.

For its part JSTOR did understand proportionality. Once Aaron had been arrested and his laptop containing the millions of journal articles confiscated it was content that justice had been done and withdrew from the case and asked the government to do the same.

The government did not, deciding for whatever reason, to increase the original 4 felony charges to 13.

This, according to Aaron’s family, is what pushed him to end his own life:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

or as Lessig put it, he was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying

For its part MIT has decided to do a “thorough analysis” of school’s involvement. There is still no word on whether the US Attorney’s office will do the same.

All of this serves to highlight the difficulties in changing entrenched systems (something we at Planet3.0 are only too familiar with). The academic publishing system is incredibly entrenched and supported by a vast infrastructure ready to be defended by an army of lawyers.

But Aaron’s courage in breaking the rules was not in vain. Despite the fact that the costs of this courage can, at times, be unimaginably high there is hope. Shortly after Aaron’s death impromptu memorials spring up. Many academics, who have long been uncomfortable with the fact that they have to hand over the copyrights of their articles to the journal publishers began posting pdfs of their journal articles online under the hashtag #pdftribute. I think the best way to honour Aaron’s legacy. To stand up for the ideals he stood for, to have courage to break the rules in order to light the spark of change.

We are all, even those if us who never met Aaron, a little poorer:

To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.

Goodbye, Aaron.
-Cory Doctorow

Aaron Swartz

22 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

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  1. “Aaron’s art was an amazing ability to focus on the truly important. When he left, just as when Len left, he left an obligation on the rest of us to keep what each of us have of him, and put it to good use. Between us, I believe we still have a massively parallel, distributed version of Aaron, one unique part of his life shared with each of us alone. The part I’ll remember for us is just how funny he was, and how serious change sometimes requires a light touch, and a sense of the absurd.”


  2. Lessig:

    “The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’ For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. . And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.”

    Unable to appeal for financial help? What’s that about? And how did the rest of the community miss that?

    1. Not sure, but given Lessig’s knowledge of the case (he was Aaron’s lawyer for a while and they were friends) I will give him the benefit of doubt.

  3. One reason (of several) that I think that talking about Aaron fits in with P3 is this question of openness and hacking.

    After all, the recent history of how climate is perceived is largely colored by a hacking that might not at first glance seem altogether different from what Aaron did with JSTOR.

    To me the key difference is process vs product.

    There is no reason to expose the day-to-day process of doing science, particularly given the propensity of what passes for discourse in the present day to seize on trivialities and blow them out of proportion into conspiracies. If all scientific conversation were to happen on broadcast TV rather than at cafes and bars and in lab hallways, many important inspirations would be squelched. We’d be reduced to the worst of science, pedestrian and risk averse. We get plenty of that anyway.

    But what JSTOR is the gatekeeper for is the formal output of the process, not the day-to-day input. This is almost entirely paid for out of public funds in one country or another. These results belong to the public, not to the guys who historically made a living running the printing press.

    I do not think it is wise to advocate breaking the law except in the most extreme circumstances. Gandhi and MLK and Mandela all broke the unjust laws of their countries. Granted they were surely more visceral injustices than the journal system, but this event has got to get us considering whether the science publication system is not a very significant flaw in how our world has evolved. Would I have done what Aaron did, or encouraged him to do it? Nope. No way. I’m not sure whether this is ethics or cowardice, but it’s not for me.

    But the way the system criminalized one of the most valuable people around is definitely cause to stop and think.

  4. Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, the nonprofit organization that runs JStor, told Technology Review in an interview last summer that people who were calling for open access underestimated the costs associated with digitizing journals and enabling online access to them. Because of that overhead, JStor couldn’t just give its archive away. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation created JStor in the mid-1990s as a way to relieve libraries from the escalating costs of storing paper journals, which meant that a big part of JStor’s mission was to ensure its own sustainability.

    1. I’ll buy that there is significant cost in digitizing old journals (new ones digitized as part of the publishing process) but not in enabling online access to them. Or at least there shouldn’t be significant costs if they are being smart about how they go about enabling online access.

      Also if there was a real cost associated with enabling online access then uploading them journal articles to P2P networks would have lessened the burden on JSTOR.

    2. According to Dan Moutal: Cost associated with digitizing — high. Cost associated with making available online once digitized–low. Mr. Moutal, you are treating digitizing and putting online as two independent activities, and acting as if it is somehow immoral to charge for the latter. There wouldn’t be any of this older material to put online without the digitizing. What are the expenses associated with digitizing? Where is the money to pay the salaries and benefits of the people doing the digitizing work coming from? How little do you think they should earn?

    3. You are treating digitizing and putting online as two independent activities

      Yes I am. They are two distinct activities. Related in a sense, but still independent.

      The main issue is that digitizing is a one time expense, yet JSTOR’s ‘business model’ doesn’t really take this into account*. Once the cost of digitizing has been recouped then there is even less justification for the large fees JSTOR charges.

      On journal articles published since the information age began the costs of digitizing are negligible (no need to scan anything)

      Also framing this in terms of cost, is probably not very useful. Think of the amazing resources that required millions of hours to create, yet are available to everyone completely free of charge. (Wikipedia, the Gutenberg project, archive.org, the various book scanning efforts, and there are countless more examples). None of these make sense from a cost perspective, yet they are all immensely valuable.

      There are no good reasons (but many bad reasons) why a similar effort could not succeed with academic journals.

      I also should emphasize that I do have a lot of sympathy for JSTOR. They are caught between a rock and a hard place, having to make deals with the journal publishers in order to survive, who are often only interested in extracting as much money from their content as possible.

      That might be excusable when the content is used for entertainment purposes (movies, TV, music) but not when it is scientific information payed for by tax payers.

      In the end the whole academic publishing industry is badly broken. JSTOR might only be a small part of that, and not a particularly big offender, but it is still part of a broken system.

      I really hope you read Jeff Jarvis’ article (linked in the main article above)

      * Even JSTOR is beginning to recognize this as recently they made some of their material available free of charge

  5. There has been a disturbing trend towards repression in the last few years. I’ve been cutting it dead with my monofocus on the environment, but this has been toiling around in what I call my mind for the last couple of days. Truly a tragedy, and an unnecessary one at that. Now is time to take a good hard look at the freedoms we still have, or we will lose them; that may happen anyway. As life becomes increasingly stressful in so many ways, it is in the nature of our power structure that more of that power will be concentrated in corporate hands. One can hope the outrage and sadness generated by this young life will bear fruit.

    One would hope that Obama would stop running with the hounds on this. It has been distressing to see him lose his independence and as he dodges and weaves on issues of security.

  6. Anonymous chimes in:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-21213793Anonymous hackers target US agency site

    Activists embedded a video statement on the homepage of the United States Sentencing Commission, an agency of the US government.

    The statement referred to the death of Mr Swartz, an internet activist who apparently killed himself in January.

    “Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed,” the statement said.

    “Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win.”

  7. As a coda, shame has had a significant effect on Carmen Ortiz and her subordinates. Their political ambitions have been shattered and rightfully so. Too late for Aaron Swartz, but this may gift other prosecutors a sense of caution in the future.

  8. The New Yorker came out with a multi-dimensional article on this, which I highly recommend. This is not simple.

    For once, it’s not behind a paywall (given the subject, that makes sense).

    “Requiem for a Dream”

    The picture created by multiplee sources, of a guy who, for example, “just recognizing he was going to need other people, and that was too hard for him to accept” (Lessig, p. 57) is fascinating and food for reflection.

    (a personal note: when I was a student at MIT, many of my friends were hackers – since I dropped out and eventually became an artist, I had forgotten – most of them were smarter than me, at least in this dimension!)

    1. addendum: since I noted a mildly negative aspect, here are a couple of others for those not following through:

      He was not a saint. He could be as petty as anyone. But the thing that makes a good life isn’t constantly being saintly—it’s just continuing to do shit. We spend so much time waiting to start to live. He always went big—he never looked for permission to go big. He assumed that he could talk to anyone he wanted, and he was right, and it wasn’t because he was super-special-genius-boy, it was because he tried.

      Quinn Norton

      I can’t help but think that until I put the type of skin in the game that he did that maybe I shouldn’t mourn him, that maybe it’s even a little vulgar and self-serving.

      Alec Resnick

      I FELL IN LOVE with him because I fell in love with the way his existence suggested that I, too, could be Good. It felt like being grateful for a certain kind of faith. …

      Alec Resnick

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