Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz - he was only 26

Certainly a person that I was unaware of, but that was to my detriment. He committed suicide for reasons unclear, although he did suffer from depression. However, it does appear that a prosecution by the federal government played a role.

He was only 26. He is given credit at age 14 for co-development of RSS feeds, a publishing tool that all Internet users know, and he co-founded Reddit.  He was at Stanford and he was a Harvard Fellow.  He co-founded Demand Progress and Progressive Change Campaign Committee. See this excellent article Aaron Swartz Hacks the Attention Economy, MIT Technology Review, that details more about Aaron Swartz's efforts, influence and ideals.

Aaron Swartz's family statement on the prosecution:
"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 U.S. 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."
It may or may not be fair to assign blame to the federal prosecution for his death, but it seems there is a common sense connection. A person as bright as he evidently was should not fear the federal government. The prosecution in our name seemed to be merely because the government can. Here, arguably, the feds were looking to make a point on downloading and he was only collateral damage.

Why was the feds putting him on trial?
"Swartz had accessed MIT's computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he "stole" several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it's pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of "theft."" [Techdirt].
But JSTOR was not pressing the charges. "It had stopped the downloading and secured the "stolen" content, along with receiving assurances from Swartz that the files would not be distributed." [Techdirt].  And so far MIT's role, if any, in the prosecution is unknown, but family faults the feds and MIT, but not JSTOR.

Was it payback as suggested by Techdirt? Apparently Swartz had 'gamed' the PACER system. "PACER (acronym for Public Access to Court Electronic Records) is an electronic public access service of United States federal court documents." [PACER (law)]. The feds had investigated him, without filing charges, for downloading public documents without paying the fee.

Swartz is seen as a folk-hero because of his view that on-line content ought to be free to the public.  A snapshot of Aaron Swartz can be found in "a statement [in part] released by his family and his girlfriend:"
"Aaron's commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. 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."
Interestingly, that attitude is what made the Internet. An unknown number of individuals expending an untold number of hours worked without remuneration to make the Internet a free flow of information for all. The programming and technical work manifested itself in shareware.

Two examples. In the late 70s modem protocols were developed by user Christensen - not some commercial enterprise. [XMODEM]. What made Palm Pilot successful and popular was the shareware apps created by users.

Much of the success of the companies like Microsoft came from the efforts of ordinary people using their time and skills to produce technological advances for the sake of producing them. Freely distributed spreadsheets, word processing and a host of other software was the genesis of the success of many companies.

Now I am not too sure that on-line content merely because it is on-line should make it within the public domain. But I know that I have found it particularly galling to find a paywall blocking my access to federal public court documents. A little less galling is being charged a fee by JSTOR; a non-government organization that levies a fee because their information is not "public" information.

Most likely we will never know why the feds sought to make an example of Aaron Swartz. My bet would be the control of the Internet. Control not only of information flow but also for revenue. Countries with variety of political persuasions all seek to control the Internet using as many different means. The result is the same whether it is China or the US.

Ordinary Internet users like myself owe a debt of gratitude for the work of the early Internet pioneers and those like Aaron Swartz that seek to keep it free of government influence and control.

Aaron Swartz appears to have been one of those super-bright individuals that was more of a super hero than a super villain as the federal government was attempting to characterize him.

This paragraph from his family:
"Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable-these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We're grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world." [Aaron Swartz's family statement].
Best said by the family: "Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost."