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Published on February 20th, 2013 | by Natalie Archer

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The death of an internet hero

Aaron Swartz at a SOPA protest.

Aaron Swartz at a SOPA protest [Open Knowledge Foundation]

Reddit refers to itself as the front page of the internet and it lived up to those words more than ever last month with the death of one of its founders and developers; Aaron Swartz.

The American digital rights activist killed himself just weeks before going on trial. He was found dead at his apartment on January 11; he was 26.

Swartz was charged in 2011 for illegally downloading a large number of articles from online scientific library Journal Storage – JSTOR– without permission and with intent to distribute them for free.

However, Swartz did not actually distribute any of articles he downloaded, and claimed he did not intend to do it for profit.

Many argue he had every right to download the articles as an authorised JSTOR user; at the very worst, he may have intended to violate the company’s “terms of service” by making the articles public.

Draconian

Once arrested, Swartz returned everything he downloaded swearing never to use them, and JSTOR said they “settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011”.

However, US federal prosecutors ignored this and charged him with multiple crimes which, had he been convicted, could have left him facing prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

This has made many wonder whether the US’s draconian action against computer hackers is out-dated and inequitable.

Swartz was a child prodigy and at the tender age of 13 he anticipated the idea of Wikipedia and won the ArtsDigital Prize, a competition for young people who create useful and educational non-commercial websites.

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” Aaron Swartz

By the time he was 14 he was a part of the working group that produced RSS; a family of web feed formats which help most of us subscribe to and read blogs.

His tragically short life was filled with heroic and generous acts; making significant contributions to many online sites, most notably, Reddit.

Swartz wanted to make it easier to share information on the internet – building services to enable social interactions around information and ideas.

He was committed to many causes and believed in civil liberties and internet freedom. He was the founder of Demand Progress, which launched the campaign against internet censorship bills – wanting to make information and knowledge as free as possible.

Information liberator

In 2008 in Italy, Swartz gave a speech about information freedom, stating: “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

It is clear to see why Swartz’s suicide has hit the internet with such force, with millions of people openly grieving the passing of the intellect.

The committed liberator of information has been referred to as an “American hero” and a “political martyr” all across the World Wide Web.

Swartz’s death has not only immersed his followers and fans into mourning but it has also boiled their blood and caused outrage. Many have taken to blogs and forums to openly blame the government for his death.

Although he suffered from depression, even Swartz’s family and friends believe he was driven to his demise – saying he was hounded constantly and bullied by prosecutors over an alleged crime that had no victims.

At Swartz’s memorial, his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said that he was “forced by the government to spend every fibre of his being on this damnable, senseless trial, with no guarantee that he could exonerate himself at the end of it.”

Citizens of the world

The angriest and most vocal of groups seems to be hacker-activist group Anonymous. They say they hijacked the website of the U.S. Sentencing Commission saying they would avenge the death of Swartz.

The website of the commission was taken over last week and the hackers replaced the home screen with a message addressing “Citizens of the world”. The message warned that when Swartz killed himself two weeks ago “a line was crossed.”

“The law is wielded less and less to uphold justice, and more and more to exercise control, authority and power in the interests of oppression or personal gain.” Hacker activist group, Anonymous

The hacker group stated, “We have seen how the law is wielded less and less to uphold justice, and more and more to exercise control, authority and power in the interests of oppression or personal gain.”

Anonymous claim they have gained access to government computer systems and copied secret information that they threaten to make public.

But is all of this resentment and animosity justified? Was the internet pioneer treated harshly? He was offered a plea deal of six months, and officials have insisted they did not over-reach in their pursuit of Swartz.

However, he was charged with thirteen felony counts that could have landed him in jail for thirty-five years, a longer term than most murders and robberies.

The government also insisted he stole the articles, worth millions, to sell for his own personal gain.

Grounds for change

But website Electronic Frontier Programme claims that Swartz was facing the possibility of decades in prison for accessing the MIT network and downloading academic papers as part of his activism work for open access to knowledge.

“No prosecutor should have tools to threaten to end someone’s freedom for such actions, but the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) helped to make that fate a realistic fear for Swartz.” The tragedy indeed shines light on the flaws of the CFAA. How can this drastic legal action be fully justified for the freedom of information?

But Swartz’s tragic death has paved way for change. Lawmakers are starting to rethink computer laws in the US, with House Oversight Committee Chairman, Darrell Issa, investigating the Justice Department’s prosecution of the internet hero.

Online petitions have also been put in place, with the Electronic Frontier Programme in America asking the public to call on congress to make a change.

The family and partner of Swartz have also created a memorial website, in which they released a statement saying: “He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the internet and the world a fairer, better place.” In the wake of his death, many hope this is the beginning for change.

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Natalie Archer



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