Britain’s The Economist, whose editorials rarely deal with events other than those of world significance, has weighed in with a piece on the untimely death of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old who hanged himself a few days ago.
“His aim was to download as many pages as possible from an archive of academic journals called JSTOR, which was available by paid subscription only to libraries and institutions,” it says.
“That was morally wrong, he thought; the knowledge contained in it (often obtained with public funding, after all) had to be made available, free, to everyone. And it was absurdly simple to do that.
“He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system. He just ran a script, called keepgrabbing.py, which liberated 4.8m articles at almost dangerous speed.”
The article states >>>
Small, dark, cluttered places were important in the life of Aaron Swartz. His days were spent hunched in his bedroom over his MacBook Pro, his short-sighted eyes nearly grazing the screen (why, he asked himself, weren’t laptop screens at eye level?), in a litter of snaking cables and hard drives. In the heady days of 2005 when he was developing Reddit, now the web’s most popular bulletin board, he and his three co-founders shared a house in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he slept in a cupboard. And it was in a cupboard—an unlocked wiring cupboard, where a homeless man kept stuff—that in November 2010 he surreptitiously placed a laptop, hidden under a box, and plugged it directly into the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His aim was to download as many pages as possible from an archive of academic journals called JSTOR, which was available by paid subscription only to libraries and institutions. That was morally wrong, he thought; the knowledge contained in it (often obtained with public funding, after all) had to be made available, free, to everyone. And it was absurdly simple to do that. He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system. He just ran a script, called keepgrabbing.py, which liberated 4.8m articles at almost dangerous speed. MIT tried to block him, but time after time he outwitted them; and then, as a last resort, he plugged in the laptop in the cupboard.
He had form on this; lots of form. In 2006 he got hold of the book cataloguing data kept by the Library of Congress, usually steeply charged for, and posted them free in the Open Library. In 2009 he wormed his way into a free-access trial of the PACER system, which contains all electronic federal court records, in certain public libraries; he downloaded 19.9m pages of it, then uploaded them to the cloud, before anyone could stop him. Again, it was easy: using a small, elegant language called perl, the documents fell into his hands.
He seemed to have been doing this for ever, writing programs to liberate information. At 12 or 13—a plump, bookish boy with a computer-company executive for a father and a very early Mac in the den—he set up theinfo.org, a sort of Wikipedia before the fact, which was going to contain all the world’s knowledge on one website. A mere year or so later he was working with Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, to launch the Semantic Web to improve data-sharing, and developing RSS 1.0 to distribute videos and news stories. He helped set up Creative Commons, too, which made copyright licensing simpler (as, for example, to get this photo of him).
All this could have made him a fortune, but he had no interest in that. He wanted a world that was better, freer and more progressive. He dropped out of high school, then out of Stanford, educating himself instead by reading prodigious numbers of books, mostly philosophy. He made friends and fell loudly out with them because they couldn’t be as perfectionist as he was. At gatherings he would turn up messy-haired and half-shaven, the shy nerd’s look, but with the intense dark gaze and sudden, confident grin of a young man out to turn society on its head.
A lot of money came his way when Reddit was sold to Condé Nast in 2006, but relocation to an office made him miserable. Google offered him jobs, but he turned them down as unexciting. Political campaigning became his passion. He wanted to see everything available online, free, with nothing held back by elites or big money, and nothing censored. Information was power, as he proclaimed in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008, and war was needed “by stealth”, “in the dark”, “underground”, for the freedom to connect. In 2011 there was no fiercer voice against the Stop Online Piracy Act, and in 2012 no one prouder to proclaim it dead.
The JSTOR business, however, got him into deep trouble. When he went back to the cupboard for his laptop, police arrested him. He was charged on 13 counts, including wire fraud and theft of information, and was to go on trial in the spring, facing up to 35 years of jail. The charges, brought by a federal prosecutor, were hugely disproportionate to what he had done; MIT and JSTOR had both settled with him, and JSTOR, as if chastened by him, had even opened some of its public-domain archive. But theft was theft, said the prosecution.
Darkness to light
All this added to a weight that had oppressed him for many years. “Look up, not down,” he urged readers of his weblog; “Embrace your failings.” “Lean into the pain.” It was hard to take that advice himself. He kept getting ill, several illnesses at once. Migraines sliced into his scalp; his body burned. And he was sad most of the time, a sadness like streaks of pain running through him. Books, friends, philosophy, even blogs didn’t help. He just wanted to lie in bed and keep the lights off.
In 2002 he posted instructions for after his death (though I’m not dead yet! he added). To be in a grave would be all right, as long as he had access to oxygen and no dirt on top of him; and as long as all the contents of his hard drives were made publicly available, nothing deleted, nothing withheld, nothing secret, nothing charged for; all information out in the light of day, as everything should be.
RIP Aaron. You knew knowledge wants to be unfettered
In another post, this time in the Guardian, Aaron’s partner,Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said she was “absolutely confident” that Swartz killed himself because of the case, in which he was being prosecuted for downloading academic articles from a university archive, Amanda Holpuch writes.
She goes on >>>
Swartz, 26, a prominent open-internet advocate who helped build Reddit and RSS, was found dead in the Brooklyn apartment he shared with Stinebrickner-Kauffman on January 11. They started dating a few weeks before Swartz was indicted in 2011.
He was set to go trial next month for downloading academic articles from JSTOR, an online academic journal library, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If convicted, he could have faced a 30-year jail sentence, although it emerged this week that he had been offered a six-month term in a plea bargain.
“The legal system has lost all sense of mercy and justice and it has been replaced with punitiveness and vindictiveness,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman told Mail Online.
“Felony charges change the course of people’s lives. There are things Aaron maybe wanted to do – like go into government – and it’s just ludicrous that one act like this could prevent somebody like him from serving his country. The risk was too much for him.”
Stinebrickner-Kauffman also provided the Mail with photos of the couple’s last evening together, which they spent at a New York bar Swartz wanted to go to, and where they had dined on his favorite foods: grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese.
“I feel that Aaron’s friends and family deserve to know that he had lots of happy moments in his last few weeks,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “As well as the world needing to hear the systemic problems that led to his death people need to know that we had lots of happy moments together.”
Strinebrickner-Kauffman is the executive director and founder of SumOfUs, a movement that attempts to counterbalance the power of corporations. She said that Swartz would take the subway with her to work, but the morning of January 11, he told her he wanted to stay home and rest.
“I wanted to stay with him but he said he didn’t want me to and that I should go to the office,” Strinebrickner-Kauffman said. “So I did.”
She found him that evening dead of an apparent suicide in their apartment.
Swartz’s family released a statement with Stinebrickner-Kauffman late the next day and said Swartz’s death was the product of prosecutorial overreach for “an alleged crime that had no victims”. They also faulted MIT for not offering support in his legal battles and not standing up for “its own community’s most cherished principles.”
The US federal prosecutor handling Swartz’s case, Carmen Ortiz, responded to these accusations in a statement on Wednesday and said that her office was enforcing the law “reasonably.” Ortiz said that the office never told Swartz’s attorney’s that they intended to seek the maximum penalties.
“The prosecutors recognized that there was no evidence against Mr Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal financial gain, and they recognized that his conduct – while a violation of the law – did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress and called for by the sentencing guidelines in appropriate cases,” Ortiz said.
An outpouring of tributes appeared online following Swartz’s death, including comments from the man credited with creating the internet, Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote on Twitter: “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.”
Silicon Valley congresswoman Zoe Lofgren is working on legislation to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act called “Aaron’s law”.
“His family’s statement about this speaks volumes about the inappropriate efforts undertaken by the US government,” Lofgren said. “There’s no way to reverse the tragedy of Aaron’s death, but we can work to prevent a repeat of the abuses of power he experienced. We should prevent what happened to Aaron from happening to other internet users.”
A public memorial is set to be held at New York’s Cooper Union on Saturday.
In the meanwhile, MIT says it’ll launch an internal investigation into the university’s part in the circumstances that led to the suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz.
Says a post on JSTOR >>>
We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit.
And here’s Reddit.
Jon Newton — myblogdammit
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