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The Lost Boy

By (February 1, 2016) One Comment

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internettheidealist
By Justin Peters
Scribner, 2016

The Internet activist and programmer Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday, 11 January 2013 in his apartment in Brooklyn, at the age of 26. He’d been under Federal indictment on charges of computer fraud and abuse stemming from his clandestine downloading of millions of documents in 2011 from an online database of academic journals nicknamed JSTOR. He’d hidden a laptop in a basement closet of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and used the courtesy access code given to him by Harvard University to copy masses of journal articles without paying the stipulated fees. MIT grew suspicious and trained a camera on the closet. Swartz was identified, arrested, tried, and prosecuted.

The incident itself was utterly baffling, as the opening wail of Justin Peters’ excellent new book The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet states perfectly:

The discovery raised far more questions than it answered. Aaron Swartz was famous. He was neither a malicious hacker nor a vandalistic “script kiddie,” but rather a well-known programmer and political activist. He was friends with the Internet icons Lawrence Lessig and Tim Berners-Lee. He was a research affiliate at Harvard. His blog was internationally popular. So why was he skulking around an MIT basement siphoning obscure research papers like some tenure-track cat burglar? What were his plans for the nearly 5 million JSTOR documents he had acquired? What in the world was he thinking?

What he was thinking was almost certainly some variation on the sentiment first expressed in Stewart Brand’s 1987 The Media Lab: “Information wants to be free.” Swartz was a vociferous advocate of the “free culture” movement of so-called “hacktivists” in the early days of the World Wide Web, and he’d written and spoken many times about how the copying of information isn’t theft, because the purpose of theft is to deprive somebody of something in order to make it yours instead. But if you copy a copyrighted song or download a pirated movie, such thinking goes, you’re not depriving the original owner of anything. As Peters tells it, Swartz even disliked the term “pirate”:

“I’ve often complained to folks about their use of the term ‘pirate’ to mean ‘share,’” he wrote in February 2002. “When folks complain about pirated movies, do they really mean to imply that sharing movies with someone is the moral equivalent of attacking a ship?” He bragged that he was using a service called LimeWire to download copyrighted music for free.

But in this as in so much else he wrote, Swartz was being disingenuous. The equivalence here is not, of course, the sharing but the initial taking. As Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich commented when illegal music-sharing sites like Napster were burgeoning in popularity, “Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community.” With a conceptual clarity the US courts would later echo, he said that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tells us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

In retrospect, as Peters himself points out, Swartz’s theft doesn’t seem quite so bewildering. “His actions shouldn’t have surprised anyone,” Peters writes. “If the city of Cambridge had compiled a yearbook of all its residents, Aaron Swartz would surely have been named Most Likely to Try to Download the Entire JSTOR Corpus.” This is the young man who’d written – and posted online, naturally – “The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” in 2008, which read in part:

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

SwartzThis was the rallying cry of the feckless, irresponsible, something-for-nothing hacker counter-culture, and by virtue of his undeniable brilliance, it sat even more poorly on somebody like Swartz, who didn’t exactly donate his services to his various employers over the years. And as Peters indicates over and over again, it couldn’t be called out of character for a young man whose parents had allowed him to quit high school because he said he found it tedious, for a young man who more often than not left colleagues and co-workers standing around with unfinished projects he’d promised to help complete, for a young man who bought a sleeping bag and slept in the doorway of a bookstore in Harvard Square in 2005 and called it an “authentic” experience. Peters is eloquent and fair in his summing up:

His parents had had the wherewithal to underwrite his youthful exceptionalism; he had been free to opt out of systems that did not regard him as special. It is easy to sleep on the street when you know you are doing so by choice; it is easy to shirk tedious tasks when your well-being has never hinged on their completion.

As Peters points out, the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto was just the latest iteration of an idea that had been around far longer than Swartz had been alive. “Since the earliest days of digital computing,” Peters writes, “idealists have envisioned the machines as the foundation of an infinite library that would offer unfettered access to the fruits of human knowledge and creative production.” In this world, “a world whose culture could not be owned,” all knowledge and creative efforts would be pooled and shared by everybody. As Peters shrewdly points out:

Agglomerative collaboration, in which individual talents are utilized in pursuit of a common goal, animates digital utopianism. It is the soul of the hacker ethic, the motivating ethos of the free software movement.

Swartz learned this ethic in part at the feet of its architects, people like Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, or Project Gutenberg founder Michael Hart, who told the American Library Association, “There will be 10,000 Machine-Readable-Texts available by Dec. 31, 2000, even if I had to make them all myself,” or Gene Kan, one of the developers of the file-sharing network Gnutella, who addressed an audience in 2000:

Can we stem the tide of new technologies? Highly unlikely. So what does the future hold? Great things if profiteers adapt, if intellectual property profiteers adapt. Technology moves forward and leaves the stragglers behind. The adaptors always win and the stalwarts always lose.

(Also World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-lee, whose tweet in response to Swartz’s death belongs in the Sententiousness Hall of Fame: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”)

But even in his teens, Swartz was as much an architect himself as he was anybody’s student, as Peters makes clear while continuing to quote from the Manifesto:

It’s called stealing or piracy, Swartz wrote, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral – it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy. Any reluctance to embrace free culture is a function of greed for Swartz, the moral equation was often that simple.

This is spot-on accurate, and it explains the MIT closet-skulking theft as well as anything does. For Swartz, the mere existence of JSTOR’s vast archives was an affront. “Maybe he was downloading them because he’d figured out a way to do it and he was going to wait to see what to do next,” Peters quotes a friend of Swartz saying. “Maybe he did it so he didn’t have to have an Internet connection to read whatever journal he wanted.” To which our author adds: “Feel free to examine the evidence and draw your own conclusions – the federal government certainly did.”

Swartz had been to conferences all over the world; he’d spoken and written at length on the free culture movement, the hacker world-view that had at its heart the idea, the dream, that the Internet could be better than the marketplace. He had countless fans and many adherents, and he routinely impressed people twice and three times his age with both his intelligence and his seriousness. One conversation with him was usually enough to convince the listener that this was another Steve Jobs, a slightly maladroit syncretizing genius who would in time change the entire industry for the better.

SwartzMITMIT saw almost immediately that it could only lose in the court of public opinion by tearing down such a beloved Internet figure, so they backpedaled on their drive to see him prosecuted. But the matter was firmly in Federal hands by that point, and a Federal grand jury returned a host of charges against Swartz. Even their plea-bargained reduced charges would have seen Swartz spend some months in prison and – much worse from his perspective, one is certain – limited, monitored use of computers for a longer period thereafter, and it was by no means certain that the US Attorney for Massachusetts would settle for reduced charges. Not to mention the sheer expense of the proceedings, which in this as in all cases the Federal prosecutors very much intended to use as a weapon. When the little startup tech company of which Swartz was a partner had been bought by Conde Nast for an enormous sum in 2006, he’d become wealthy, but the financial juggernaut of a Federal investigation is designed to annihilate fortunes, and according to the people who knew him best, Swartz considered asking others for help anathema.

By the time of that January day in Brooklyn, an introverted, self-questioning, absolutist, worst-case-scenario-addict like Swartz would have been indulging in the feeling that all hope was lost. For reasons known only to itself, the Federal government clearly wanted to make an example of him. Peters reports that even while Swartz was deciding to kill himself, his attorney was exploring a promising new strategy for getting key pieces of the prosecution’s evidence excluded and most of the case vacated. And the merest hint of a request for help from Swartz would have brought support and money pouring in from a dozen quarters. And even a few years in a minimum-security prison (for what was, after all, a crime) would have left a further forty years to write and read and lecture and change minds and laws, to address what Peters nicely describes as the “fundamental disconnect between our laws and our habits, between the way we are supposed to conduct ourselves online and the way we actually do.”

Because he was having a bad week, because mere changeable circumstances were breaking against him, Aaron Swartz won’t be part of the ongoing debates about the questions that absorbed his short life. People who knew him, people who only knew about him, and perhaps most of all people who would otherwise have thrived in the world he might have created all are naturally angry with him for killing himself when he had so much more work to do. He should still be here.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston. His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

One Comment »

  • The “conceptual clarity” Steve Donoghue admires in Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich doesn’t quite dispose of all the moral questions associated with the Aaron Swartz case, as Donoghue implies. “Good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods” is exactly what Swartz’s action was not. For one thing, he did not “steal” the JStor documents: he was an authorized user who violated the website’s terms of service. One hopes the “federal courts” are capable of making such distinctions, even if Donoghue is not. More important, he did not “traffic” in the downloaded content, and there is no evidence whatever that he intended to. He may well have wanted to make them publicly available for free, but to call that “trafficking” is, again, an inability to make distinctions that one hopes a federal court (though alas, not federal prosecutors) would be capable of.

    Ulrich’s/Donoghue’s analogy to Napster is faulty. Artists lost royalties from the material Napster appropriated; academics do not receive royalties from downloads of their articles from JStor. Moreover JStor, Elsevier, and similar databases charge outrageous prices for much of the material they store, making it unavailable to small institutions or independent scholars. As a result, they are so unpopular in the academic community that they chose not to prosecute, hoping to minimize the wave of hostility they would have faced.

    How to support artists and scholars while allowing the widest possible circulation of their work is a knotty problem. Lewis Hyde and Jaron Lanier have written thoughtfully about it. The readers of Open Letters should check them out.

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