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Aaron, where art thou?

Image: Boston Herald
Image: Boston Herald

Article: Ravinesh Sakaran – Contributor

My knees went weak as I felt a wave of emotions hit me like rain of bullets piercing through my skin, numbing almost all of my senses; I could not believe my eyes as the breaking news flashed on my iPhone screen: Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist, dies at 26.

I learnt of Aaron Swartz during my first year of college in the US; he was more like a folk hero with a huge following among the IT circles. He was most famous for leading the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a legislation proposed in congress to censor the Internet. SOPA was devised to give the government excessive power to regulate the Internet, most importantly the power to shutdown websites in the name of copyright law.

Many of you might still recall on Jan. 18,2012, when Wikipedia staged a blackout with the famous quote “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” The protest grew larger when tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Amazon, AOL, Reddit, Mozilla, LinkedIn, eBay, and PayPal joined the protest. SOPA eventually did not pass Congress.

If it weren’t for Aaron Swartz and his group of activist friends who spread the awareness of this draconian bill, this bill would have passed Congress silently as mainstream media failed to highlight and focus the merits of this bill, which deeply infringe their first amendment rights. Websites that lurk in the grey area of copyright law such as Wikipedia and Reddit, would have definitely been shutdown.

SOPA was a bill that evolved from a bill called Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Acts (COICA) and later on into Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). The entertainment industry lobbied immensely by spending millions of dollars to pass the bill, and even going to great lengths of modifying the semantics of the bill to deceive Congress and the people.

Aaron Swartz caught wind of COICA in 2010 and started an online petition, which led him to establish demandprogress.org, the catalyst that would bring about the downfall of COICA and the subsequent bills.

Aaron Swartz was a computer-programing prodigy. At the age of 14, he played a pivotal role in inventing the RSS feed that is widely used to administer what people read on the Internet. He dropped out of high school but managed to get into Stanford University before dropping out again after his first year to co-found Reddit, the highly popular social networking site. He sold the site for an undisclosed fee, estimated to be around $10m and $20m. Although achieving legendary like status as at a very young age, he wasn’t swayed like many young dot.com millionaires to continue making more and more money.

He was an idealist. At the age of 24, he became a Harvard Research fellow, conducting research on political corruption. A relentless advocate of the open access movement, a movement that promotes free and easy access to world’s knowledge on the internet, because as a social activist, he was perturbed by the corrupting control of corporations over institutions.

“He was a voracious reader, he would take information and analyze it at a rapid rate and he was thirsty for knowledge about how the world worked and how it could be made better. I’ve never met anyone so single-minded about changing the world,” says Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron Swartz’s girlfriend to the Guardian.

On the Jan. 11, 2013, it would be Stinebrickner-Kauffman who found Aaron Swartz dead in the Brooklyn apartment that they shared together. Aaron hanged himself with his own belt.

Why would he commit suicide? One could go with the standard explanations of depression and etc. but the reality is according to friends and family it was an enormous federal investigation that drove him to commit suicide. He was facing 13 felony charges and facing up to 50 years in prison.

My god, what did he do to receive that kind of a punishment? He plugged in his laptop in a comcloset in MIT and speedily downloaded academic papers from this site called JSTOR, an online publishing company that distributes scholarly articles written by academics, and sells them at a high price, to subscribers. None of the money went to the academics but instead goes to the publishers. Swartz was unhappy of this system as it not only charged large fees to access these articles, did not remunerate the authors, and worse; it assured that many people were denied access to the academic writing produced by American colleges and universities

This was such an ‘atrocious’ act that JSTOR did not want press criminal charges, on top of that JSTOR did not even want to pursue civil charges. JSTOR didn’t think it was a big deal. No, the government decided that he deserved 50 years of jail time! The charges were ludicrous, even armed robbers got a maximum sentence of 25 years.

Keep in mind that Aaron Swartz did not hack into JSTOR; he already had access to those journals, as he was a Harvard fellow. The only crime that government could prove was that he had violated the terms of service of his contract with JSTOR for downloading mass academic papers at a high speed and intending to make them free.

The prosecutorial team led by Carmen Ortiz refused to back down. She offered him a plea deal for 6 months in jail, with Aarron agreeing to 13 felony charges that somehow included wire fraud.

According to the Huffington Post, Lawrence Lessing, a law professor at Harvard and who was also a mentor to Aaron Swartz said, “Anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash at academic papers is either an idiot or a liar.” He then went on to decimate Carmen Ortiz’s office by saying, “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.”

In my opinion, I believe that Aaron Swartz was maliciously bullied, intimidated, and this was aimed at breaking him because the government is scared of internet activists like Aaron Swartz, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. They are not able to control and monitor them, so they throw the book at them and use the law not for justice, but for vengeance and to make an example out of them, so that they do not even dare to question the government.

Aaron didn’t deserve this. He could have been living the high life with his vast amount of wealth and status in society, but he decided to fight ever-so-selfishly for his noble cause.

Aaron Swartz was such an open-data crusader, he actually wrote a blog post designating his buddies to make the contents of his hard drive public. He concludes the post with, “Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”

We will miss you too. R.I.P. Aaron Swartz.

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