Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Bully versus the Genius. Guess Who Won?

Chances are, if you're reading this blog, you are at least a bit of a computer aficionado. Chances also are, you owe a debt of gratitude to Aaron Swartz, whether you know it or not. If you benefit from an RSS feed landing in your in-box instead of having to physically visit your favorite sites to check for the latest updates, Aaron Swartz helped pioneer that technology. If you've ever used Reddit, Aaron was involved in that as well. If you have taken advantage of downloads that would have been forbidden by the Stop On-Line Piracy Act or the Protect IP Act, Swartz' Demand Progress group was instrumental in defeating that legislation.

Simply, Aaron Swartz' motivating mission was his belief that "information wants to be free" and that the more readily it flows, the better off people and societies are.

For instance, there is a government system called PACER which allows the public to access on-line court records...for a fee. None of this is secret....all of the information is in the public domain. Aaron moved approximately 20% of PACER's information to a public site where it was accessible to everyone without cost...spending a great deal of his own dollars to do so. Aaron put his money, and his heart, where his mouth was.

Aaron later became a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT manages a digital library of academic articles, known as JSTOR. Again, there is no suggestion that this is top secret stuff. Anyone connected to the MIT networks, as Aaron was,  was free to download material from the library. So Aaron did. He downloaded over 4,000,000 million articles. As with PACER, his intent was to transfer them to a public site so they'd be freely available to everyone.

JSTOR protested Aaron's plan and he never followed through. No harm, no foul, right? But, nope, enter the federal prosecutors who take this stuff very, very seriously. Yeah, by God, because you know there are millions of us out here in cyberville, dying to download a billion words worth of dry, scholarly articles written by MIT academics. I myself was practically salivating at the prospect...NOT!

Oh, the damage we could have done with that information! Like we could probably almost bring down the country's entire economy with our greed and corruption and lies. Oh, no, wait, that's the bankers. By the way, were charges ever filed against any of them? Did any of them end up in jail? No, I don't recall that happening either.

Does the government have this same messianic zeal toward tracking down and prosecuting criminals who engage in identity theft, who steal 4,000,000 credit cards numbers instead of academic articles, who hack into corporate databases to co-opt corporate secrets - you know, crimes with actual victims? No, because those people make a real effort to not be found, making it just too hard, but Aaron was an easy target. He was "hiding" in plain sight.  

 So, the government filed charges against him, even though JSTOR itself, urged them not to. They threatened him with 35 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine. 

"Stealing is stealing," said U.S. Attorney, Carmen M Ortiz. Really? Stealing is stealing? No distinction whatsoever, huh? Swiping a loaf of bread from a convenience store or taking over a person's identity to ruin their credit and their life. No difference there that I can see. Ditto, bankrupting hundreds of thousands of your investors or snagging an academic article from a site that gives them away for free to anyone with a computer and a credential. Evidently, the latter is actually worse than the former in the government's eyes. Like a typical bully, the federal justice system chose the most vulnerable for its heavy-handed attack.

Aaron committed suicide by hanging at age 26, sentencing himself to the ultimate penalty for pissing off the government. I guess they showed him! His family called his death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." That sounds about right to me but I'd also add that it is a system with a set of totally fucked-up priorities.

And the saddest part is that Aaron will be proven right. Information really does want to be free. The first instinct of power, be it in the form of a repressive government, a corrupt corporation or an arrogant elitism, is to prevent the people from sharing in it. Aaron was a warrior on that battlefield. He gave his life for the cause but his ideas will win the war.