Endless QuestionsPosted: January 12, 2013
It’s always difficult to report that some one young has died. It’s even worse when the circumstances of death seem beyond explanation as always seems to be the case with suicides. The story of online activist Aaron Swartz is filled with glimpses into a brilliant mind, a passionate advocate for access to knowledge, a search for justice against suppression and censorship and our government who seem intent on prosecuting the wrong people these days for the wrong reasons.
Aaron Swartz, the Internet political activist who co-wrote the initial specification for RSS, has committed suicide, a relative told CNN Saturday. He was 26.
“Great minds carry heavy burdens,” wrote one user on Reddit, a popular social media website that Swartz helped develop and popularize following a merger in 2006.
Swartz also co-founded Demand Progress, a political action group that campaigns against Internet censorship.
A young prodigy, his passion pushed limits and landed him in legal troubles in recent years.
In 2011, he was arrested in Boston for alleged computer fraud and illegally obtaining documents from protected computers. He was later indicted from an incident in which he allegedly stole millions of online documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He pleaded not guilty in September, according to MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper.
Yes. Swartz helped develop Reddit and RSS feed. He will now be best known as a victim of government prosecution overkill. It’s an odd story in the endless one where big businesses and government work hard to make sure that anything slightly worth knowing must be associated with some one’s exorbitant profit and a form of ownership.
Congress passed the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in 1986 to deal with the then-new problem of malicious computer hacking. Because the law was passed when the Internet was still in its infancy, the exact scope of its provisions remains murky today. For example, there have been cases of employers suing employees under the CFAA for using their employer-provided credentials to access information on the corporate intranet that wasn’t intended for them.
In 2008, the government prosecuted a woman under the CFAA after her “cyber-bullying” of a teenager contributed to her suicide. The government argued that the woman’s actions violated the MySpace user agreement, and therefore constituted unauthorized access to MySpace servers. The woman was convicted, but her conviction was later thrown out by an appeals court.
The government seems to be making a similar argument in the Swartz case. It says he violated the CFAA when he “intentionally accessed computers belonging to MIT and JSTOR without authorization, and thereby obtained from protected computers information whose value exceeded $5,000—namely, digitized journal articles from JSTOR’s archive.” By breaking Swartz’s actions up into five different date ranges and charging him under two different sections of the CFAA for each, the government has ginned up a total of 10 counts, each of which is theoretically punishable by five years in prison. For good measure, they also charged Swartz with one count of “recklessly damaging” a computer under the CFAA and two counts of wire fraud.
It’s a stretch to say that Swartz gained unauthorized access to JSTOR’s servers. Initially, he did have authorization to access both the network and the JSTOR website. But according to the indictment, “each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export contents from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated computer programs such as Web robots, spiders, or scrapers.” The government seems to believe that once Swartz ran afoul of this contractual requirement, he became an unauthorized user and therefore a felon under the CFAA.
But treating the violation of such use restrictions, or the evasion of efforts to enforce them, as a felony is overkill. Automated crawling of websites is an extremely common activity that can have social benefits. While crawling a public (or, in the case of JSTOR semi-public) website against the wishes of its owner is generally bad manners, it’s hardly comparable to hacking into someone’s computer to access private information.
I have a major soft spot for hacktivists like Swartz. Not only is it a matter of being awed by their brilliance, but by what appears to be an ethos based on just getting knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There’s a basic underlying democratic principle in the idea that human knowledge belongs to all of us. Evidently, JSTOR must’ve agreed with him.
Swartz’s subsequent struggle for money to offset legal fees to fight the Department of Justice and stay afloat was no secret.
After the September charges came down, the wife of Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig – social justice lawyer Bettina Neuefeind – established and organized the site free.aaronsw.com to raise money for his defense.
Demand Progress – itself an organization focused on online campaigns dedicated to fighting for civil liberties, civil rights, and progressive government reform - compared The Justice Department’s indictment of Swartz to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
Swartz’s suicide came two days after JSTOR announced it is releasing “more than 4.5 million articles” to the public.
So, this isn’t the most political or strategic post we’ve ever put on the blog. Aaron’s passing isn’t one of those newsy obits that will get played at the end of the year in some tribute gala. I think, however, we need to notice his tragic death, his brilliant short, life and his commitment to an open internet with accessible content. His story is really one about our freedom to know which is really the final frontier of our humanity.