Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Case: Reddit Co-Founder and Free-Culture Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide at 26

Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide on Friday evening. He was 26 years old.

Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment and was found by his girlfriend. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

His suicide comes weeks before Swartz was to face trial regarding allegations that he stole millions of articles from popular online archive JSTOR. If convicted, Swartz faced more than 35 years of jail-time and approximately $1 million in fines.

Swartz's family is furious. In a statement released Saturday, they claim that Aaron's death is not merely 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 internet, too, is outraged. Aaron Swartz was a child prodigy largely responsible for the Internet we know and use today: as a young teenager he created RSS (Rich Site Summary), a family of Web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio, and video for users. For those of us less familiar with coding, RSS is essentially an automatic updater of information, pages, websites and articles related to a user's interests. Rather than a user having to manually inspect the websites they are interested in, RSS syndicates content automatically. Swartz "did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way," an online tribute reads.

 Swartz also co-founded popular social news website Reddit, which was acquired by Conde Nast in 2006. Prior to its acquisition Swartz merged Reddit with his own company, Infogami, a start-up he built after attending Stanford for only one year.

More importantly, however, Swartz was a heavy-hitting Internet activist for the freedom of information, a cause which has indirectly led to his premature death. His focus on civic awareness and activism was cultivated by his time at Harvard University's Center for Ethics, during which he cofounded an online group DEMAND PROGRESS (which campaigned heavily against the controversial SOPA). A Yahoo! News article written by Virginia Heffeman posthumously hails Swartz as a political martyr, writing that "he agitated without cease - or compensation - for the free-culture movement."

Swartz was arrested on January 6, 2011 for his systematic downloading of 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR, short for Journal Storage. Swartz did not like JSTOR for two reasons: it charged large fees for access to these articles but did not compensate the authors and second, it ensured that huge numbers of people are denied access to the scholarship produced by America's colleges and universities. After downloading the 4 million files through MIT's computer network, Swartz planned to make them freely available on P2P file-sharing sites.

JSTOR dropped all civil charges following his arrest, but US Attorneys Stephen P. Heymann, Scott L. Garland, and Carmen M. Ortiz pursued the case against him. Ortiz likened his actions to any any other form of stealing, saying "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars".

Swartz, who struggled with depression, is now dead because of the US criminal justice system. A rare and brilliant mind and a brave man who fought for freedom, who fought for information to be available even to those not enrolled at prestigious academic institutions, has taken his own life because of the charges laid against him. A 35-year prison sentence for a non-violent crime and offender? A man who posed precisely zero physical threat to society - his neighbors, co-workers, family, etc.? The Internet is aflame with accusations of a rat in the system or the US government purposely persecuting - crucifying - Swartz as an example to the public. Legal experts argue that the case against him and the completely disproportionate sentence made little sense. For a nation that constantly insists on asserting its democratic values and free, liberal society as superior to the rest of the world, the Swartz case certainly does not uphold its self-proclaimed standards of freedom and justice.

The coming weeks will be rife with speculation regarding the circumstances that led to Swartz's death. In particular, analysts will consider whether his 4 million downloaded JSTOR files constitute 'stealing' and if so, to what extent. Leftists will argue that it is elitist academic publishers like JSTOR who are the real thieves in this equation. Should a low-income individual who cannot afford post-secondary education (another issue reaching its boiling point in the US) not have the same access to academic research, articles, and journals as those who can? Don't large subscription fees work to further sever America along economic lines of rich and poor, deepening racial inequalities and further privileging the already privileged?

Researchers use public money to fund their work, often in the form of government grants. As it stands today, once a work is published the academic publishers own it. Publishers can then choose to make it as accessible or inaccessible as they see fit. Perhaps this withholding of research and information produced by the public dollar should be tried in Supreme Court rather than the brave whistleblowers like Aaron Swartz who call attention to it.

Ironically, JSTOR has now agreed to make approximately 4.5 million academic articles freely available to the public.

Genevieve Zingg, January 13, 2013.
Read more here.

No comments:

Post a Comment