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Why aaron Swartz had to die?

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness... Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.’

– President Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech, 21 January 2013

Between Obama’s ‘muscular’ speech and the shocking suicide of the famed computer prodigy and Internet activist Aaron Swartz falls the shadow. It is a debilitating and extremely hazardous shadow of a massive surveillance state that tightens at will all its tentacles and sucks the life out of a recalcitrant slithery prey. Like a giant octopus, it blackens out the field of vision and the hope of life and escape from its clutches of a trapped creature and gobbles it up without a wince.

Not many people had heard of Aaron Swartz before his suicide, on 11 January this year, was widely reported in the media. The blogosphere, likewise, and expectedly, bled its digital heart out singing posthumous eulogies to that maverick and extremely intelligent young man, barely 26 when he died. Why did he commit suicide? Why did he hang himself with his belt in his Brooklyn apartment in New York? Why did this guy, the witty and sharp boy next door – who had transformed from an awkward teenager, just 15 when he helped create the now ubiquitous ‘Creative Commons Licence’ with the renowned Harvard legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig, to a suave and confident orator rousing and enthusing the public with his passionate and fiery speeches on free digital frontiers, especially, through his immense contribution to deter the passing of the heinous SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act, a
coup d’état
by Hollywood and the music industry to dispose off all P2P file-sharing activities and websites offering such services) in 2012 – suddenly turn against his own life?

Who was Aaron Swartz? He was a relentless and dauntless warrior of the Open Access world; a crusader who wanted to free knowledge from the clutches of a few corporate publishers and the massive conglomerate of the digitalisation industry giants such as Google. Incredible as it may sound, for Swartz – who had played a key role in developing the RSS software, that is widely used to filter as well as manage content on the Internet based on user preferences, and who also had a significant role in the creation of Reddit, a hugely popular social networking new site – copyright issues were something he came to believe in strongly, albeit gradually. Swartz, son of a software company owner, Robert Swartz, who happened to be a consultant on intellectual property rights issues for the hallowed American institution MIT, had, ironically enough, a run in with this very premier educational hub, on, well, more paradoxically still, copyright issues and ‘illegal downloads.’

What happened was this. Swartz, in the manner of Emerson, Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, went into the ‘civil disobedience’ mode as far as the still nebulous world of Internet is concerned. Swartz got extremely worried and frustrated that academic papers, researched and written at the expense of public money by academics in premier American institutions, as well as other universities all over the world, were being locked up by a ‘pay-wall’ by websites such as JSTOR, which acted like digital fortresses imprisoning knowledge. According to Swartz, and many of his fellow activists who would want the Bastille of these high-cost pay-walls to come crashing down, academic papers signified public knowledge and public resource, that should not be, under any circumstance, be barricaded behind the thick fences of pay per download schemes. Averaging $20-30 per article, academic research was being hoarded and imprisoned behind these hefty purchase-only systems, thus widening the rift between general and specialised knowledge pools, as well as systematically creating a battery of so-called ‘experts’ who had access to these meticulous research documents, and a mass of poorly-educated, ill-informed public, who had to rely on hearsay, the sensationalising and fact-distorting media and other ‘debatable’ resources to gather information and develop opinions. For Swartz and his cohorts, academic papers should be available for free to anybody who wants to read them.

As Swartz, in a fit of defiance, started downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, by using a computer algorithm, and storing them in his laptop, so that he could distribute them for free by making them available on an open access website (perhaps in the Open Library that he helped create), JSTOR blocked his Harvard account, which he was using to download the articles in the first place. Swartz, undaunted, went over to the neighbouring MIT campus and using a visitor’s WiFi account, plugged into the MIT mainframe, and started downloading again, this time placing an ACER laptop in a locker. He was able to download about 4.8 million articles in all.

Was this digital transgression, a miniscule cyber-counterpart of the Gandhian salt march, though Aaron Swartz did it as an individual, and not with an army of followers behind him, matching his rapid footsteps, enough to so rattle the US Department of Justice that the US Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, had to slap a cumulative of 13 count charge that, if convicted, meant 35 years in jail and a fine of one million US dollars for Swartz? What kind of a vindictive and ‘unrestrained prosecutorial abuse’ is this that turns hackers, hacktivists and digital warriors into alleged ‘terrorists’ and cyber-Osamas? This overzealousness of a vigilante (in)justice system, led by the likes of this particular federal attorney in this case, is representative of a draconian structure that kills the very thing it was designed to protect – personal life and liberty, which President Obama paid lip-service to in his inaugural speech.

To quote from the official statement issued by Swartz’s family, ‘Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.’

It is remarkable that American judicial system, which lets off mammoth financial defaulters like Lehmann brothers, Goldman Sachs, Barclays, HSBC Bank and other perpetrators of unimaginably costly crimes of money-laundering, playing with people’s hard-earned savings, artificially raising housing prices, arbitrarily creating hedge funds and chit funds to serve their own ends, and finds virtually no hair-raising fault with any of these violators of public trust, goes in such a frenzied fashion against someone who had merely downloaded academic articles from a website with the intention of public distribution and no personal gain whatsoever! (IPA)
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