Since starting this blog I have tried to keep the focus fairly specific – to help me become a better writer and to make sure that people who are interested in one thing don’t have to wade through a vast morass of things not really relevant to their interests. As time has worn on though, I have let a few extra things come into this space. One of the things that has come up, but I haven’t really spoken about is the fact that I do quite a bit of writing in other little digital spots that I tend not to mention here and after giving it some thought I’ve decided I want to bring things into closer integration. To that end, I’m going to be adding a few posts, as and when they get written, on topics that I think are interesting. Obviously, a lot of what I write for other sites has a specific audience so I won’t be posting that here but ever so often there is an issue that has a wider audience so when it’s appropriate I’ll share it here.
This is something I originally wrote for the amazing website at scotspolitics.com, about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz and the free flow of information across the web. I hope you like it!
The New Frontier
This article comes with a Trigger Warning for discussion of suicide, rape and sexual assault.
Aaron Swartz was by all accounts a spectacularly gifted young man. He came to public knowledge as one of a small group of internet activists and developers who were part of the first generation to romp around in the digital playground of the early internet. Like many who find their fame online he was preternaturally talented at a young age, discovering new ways of keeping internet users connected to content. One of his most famous pieces of work was the incredibly widely used RSS 1.0 protocol which he authored when he was just 14 years old. After revolutionising one part of the web, he went on to be one of the co-founders of reddit, which became one of the most successful websites of all time. When reddit was bought out Aaron sold his share making him incredibly wealthy at a very, very young age. He started dedicating his time to the free flow of information, building links with famous free culture figures such as Lawrence Lessig – and when the US government threatened to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act it was Aaron who was one of the architects of the movement that stopped the bill being enacted. Despite the successes, the corporations he founded, the causes he championed, on the 11th of January Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment in New York City, after publically documenting his long struggle with serious depression. He had hanged himself; his body was found by his girlfriend. He was only twenty-six years old.
There are many details of Aaron’s life worthy of discussion, and for those seeking a more personal reflection both Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow have written beautiful obituaries to someone they admired and worked closely with. Even Tim Berners-Lee was moved to write a beautiful piece in which he noted “I’ve not known anybody else who is so ethical: who has thought, all the time, about what is right and what is wrong and what should be done and what should not be done.” There have been some who have tried to place a link between Aaron’s mental health and his personal circumstances, and whilst there should be no attempt at simplifying the complexities of anyone’s mental health when the details of what this man was facing come to light it certainly cannot have helped. As I’ve initially mentioned Swartz had dedicated a huge portion of his time and wealth to making information available for anyone who wanted it for free. As noble as this aim may sound, it was an aim that brought him into conflict with powerful authorities across the planet. His first legal fight came when this whiz-kid computer prodigy wrote a program that downloaded and released approximately 20% of the mammoth Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database. He’d done it because, even though the PACER documents are not covered by copyright, people wanting to access one of their documents had to pay 8 cents a time. The whole system was essentially a huge money making online scheme – with a profit of $150 million.
His activities got him investigated by the FBI before the case was dropped. The next time he came to the attention of the authorities the case attracted even more attention. In 2012 and early 2011 Swartz downloaded about 4 million academic articles from the online academic publisher JSTOR. Once he had downloaded them he uploaded them to the internet for free. Once again he was prosecuted and once again the case looked shaky at best. As a faculty member of Harvard University Swartz was perfectly entitled to access the material – the only thing that he could be said to have done wrong was breaking the terms of JSTOR’s service for downloading too many articles. Why Swartz had decided to do this was for reasons as his PACER exercise. To access JSTOR either one has to pay roughly $30 per article or be lucky enough to be a member of the right academic institution. To someone like Swartz, passionately committed to the idea of free information for all JSTOR’s fees were just not tolerable. To the court prosecutor and JSTOR’s attorneys this was violation of copyright and intellectual property theft. The chance to see how the court ruled, and whether either side could mount a strong case can now never be taken because as the case was within weeks of trial, Swartz was found dead. It is extremely tempting to join the dots here, and blame Swartz’s tragic death on the pressure that the legal system had placed him under. To do so would be overly simplistic, reducing the complexities of mental illness to an unfortunate side effect of fighting for one’s principles. Swartz deserves better than that – he also deserved the opportunity to defend the right to free information in court, and the court’s verdict would have had wider repercussions than just the sad case of Aaron Swartz. What was going to be on trial was not just one man and his attempts to widen access for all – rather, this was perhaps the most high profile occasion when the rules of the internet have come into direct conflict with the old rules and the dynastical guardians of culture and information.
Before the rise of the internet all of the bastions of culture be they publishers, art, books, music and knowledge itself were tightly controlled and monetized for economic gain. In return for our money we were given access to what they had, and we trusted them to be accountable and honest, because we thought we controlled the purse strings. The internet, and people like Aaron Swartz, liberated vast swathes of information art and other culture from under the traditional controls – for better or worse. Instead of operating under the old model of giving us what we pay for, artists and creators have found new ways and systems for making a living and making culture widely accessible like never before. In news and information the revolution has been just as drastic; where once we needed to trust our institutions, politicians and leaders the free flow of information can hold people to account like never before, allowing electorates across the world to be more informed and democratic. One only need to see the difference that organisations like Wikileaks have made to understand that the internet has forever changed the rules of how information works, moves and is exchanged. Whether that is a good thing or not, still remains to be seen.
The story of Aaron is not the only tragedy involving access to information. A darker story has been breaking in recent weeks from Stubenville Ohio. It recently came to light that members of the famous ‘Big Red’ football program had been at a party. A 17 year old girl was there, and after drinking too much she passed out. The rest of the night she was carried around by members of the program who treated her as their own personal rape toy. She was raped multiple times and the attack was filmed. When the story broke, it garnered precious little attention and it looked very much like the case was going to be dropped, and yet another group of perpetrators allowed to get away with they did. They were high school athletes, feted in the community and inured from the consequences of their actions. However the story was picked up by a local blog and found its way online. It came to the attention of KightsSec, a sub-division of the hacking collective known as Anonymous. They threatened the accused with dire repercussions if they did not apologise before the 1st of January and when the deadline passed the hackers started leaking information. Firstly they released a video of a baseball player recounting what he saw at the party in between giggles. Then came the report which among other things accused the sheriff of being close to the high school athletics coach and complicit in a cover up as well as more horrifying details about the victim and what happened to her.
What the hackers did, was internet vigilantism, and sadly, given how easy victims of sexual assault have been to ignore and neglect, it was probably necessary. If it hadn’t been for the local blogger the story would have been forgotten. If the internet hadn’t been outraged by what happened, who would have noticed something that so many people wanted to go away?
Information has changed permanently with the advent of the internet. It’s a place not unlike the old frontiers of the Wild West. The old rules can now longer apply because so many people are out THERE, in the spaces of the online world all trying to build something. As a cultural object the internet is really only adolescent and conflicts like these are to be expected as the internet becomes more and more integral to how this world works.
If these two cases have anything deep or profound to teach people it isn’t anything nearly as basic as the evils of copyright infringement, or the necessity of free information. Rather, all these stories highlight is the humanity of those avatars you see online. Aaron Swartz wasn’t just a campaigner, a tech wizard and an online hero he was also a 26 year old with depression. Those hackers who leaked the names of teenagers who had done perhaps the worst thing they could do in their young lives were not just people acting as heroes to the weak. They broke the law too. In short, until the rest of our culture catches up to the new frontier of online life, we would all do well to remember the reality of someone else, on the other side of that monitor.
I hope no more 26 year old men with so much to live for don’t kill themselves to escape from the blackness of depression. I hope no more 17 year old girls are raped by boys at parties and I hope that intuitions are accountable without needing the threat of hackers and the leaking of information. Until then we have to keep hoping that the internet can be a where people can do good, whatever that turns out looking like.