(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
January 27, 2013
Hounding Aaron Swartz to His Death
Swartz, an activist for free information, a precocious
talent who had designed
and developed a whole host of tools that we all use today,
committed suicide on
January 11. He was facing 35 years in jail and One million
dollars in fines.
Incidentally, David Hadley being tried in the
At 26, Aaron leaves behind what very few people can achieve even in a lifetime. Aaron in his young life, had not only developed RSS feed, helped to set up the Creative Commons license, was a co-founder of Reddit, set up Demand Progress, a digital rights group and was behind the hugely successful online protests that lead to defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) last year.
joins those that the
was facing 35 years in jail and One million dollars in fines
for trying to
download the archives of JSTOR, the online repository of
scientific and social
sciences journals using the MIT network. His family in a
statement has held the
The digital commons and the internet community are paying their tribute to Aaron in different ways. Some like Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the father of the internet, have mourned his passing, “Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder”; others have condemned the bullying prosecutors for hounding Aaron to his death. Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons wrote, “Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” Lawrence Liang of the Alternate Law Forum, in an interview with Newsclick, described Aaron as the first martyr for freeing information.
Others have decided to take up the cause of digital freedom more directly. Micah Allen, a researcher in the fields of brain plasticity, cognitive neuroscience, and cognitive science called for dumping research papers in public domain, "A fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles," Allen wrote on Reddit. "Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link." Already, people are using the hashtag #pdftributeaaronswartz or #pdftribute to upload such texts.
Anonymous has defaced MIT's webpages for its role and called his prosecution, "a grotesque miscarriage of justice”. It also called for “this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.”
Aaron was convinced that knowledge and information should not be the property of a few corporations and hidden behind pay-walls. In his manifesto, written in 2008, he wrote, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money
to read the work of
their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only
allowing the folks at
Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those
universities in the
Aaron called on people not just to campaign for a free information system but also argued that we should fight back by “liberating” such protected knowledge. He refused to accept this “privatisation of knowledge” by large corporations, who have bought off the governments. He called this as Guerilla Open Access and identified this to be in the grand tradition of civil disobedience.
Aaron, liberating knowledge behind pay-walls was a moral
imperative. He, as his
wont, plunged into this activity head-on. First, he took on
PACER, the database
His next brush was with MIT and JSTOR, the online store of academic articles. JSTOR has over 4.2 million articles, which is accessible only through paid subscriptions. There has been an ongoing battle over academic publications; the entire content, review, selection and even editing is done by the academic community free of any charge. But access to such material is only through paid copies or online subscriptions. Even though Open Access Journals have made some headway, the bulk of advanced journals are expensive and available only in the libraries of institutes and universities that can afford such high prices. Aaron decided to do something direct; he downloaded almost the entire JSTOR collection using a laptop connected to MIT's network.
this was discovered, the US Attorney's office swung into
action. For them, it
did not matter that JSTOR did not press charges and has even
taken a decision a
few weeks back to release into public domain a large part of
its archives. They
went after Aaron for violating the Computer
and Abuse Act passed in 1984. What the
this harsh prosecution of Aaron lies a bigger fear that the
legal experts have already stated that the
With Aaron's death, we have all lost a valued comrade in our fight for the digital commons. We cannot match his brilliance in creating new tools for the digital commons. But collectively, we can all fight the good fight for liberating information and knowledge. This should be our tribute to Aaron. As also fighting for a just society that does not penalise those who fight for public good, while lauding those who steal from the public.