Aaron Swartz was a wunderkind, a gifted boy who became a remarkable young man.
He created a Wikipedia-like Web app and RSS software when he was a teenager. As a college student, he co-founded the website service Reddit.
But like a figure in a fairy tale, despite his gifts, he was also evidently haunted: by severe depression, and lately by the prospect of a federal trial for a bakers’ dozen of felony charges.
Swartz was found dead over the weekend, hanged in his New York apartment, a suicide at age 26. The online world is aghast.
Swartz was charged in 2011 with stealing nearly 5 million paywall-accessed articles from an MIT computer archive over more than three months -- intending, prosecutors say, to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites. Security camera images at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology supposedly show him using his bicycle helmet to conceal his face. At the time, Swartz was studying ethics at Harvard.
A Spartacus for free documents on the Web, Swartz won the hearts of Internet freedom fighters and users when he was able to get the Library of Congress’ bibliographic book data, which ordinarily can be accessed by paying.
His trial was set to begin in April, and he could have faced several years in prison. His family says overzealous prosecution, “a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," helped drive Swartz to suicide.
The death of this formidable mind-on-fire man is an opportunity for big Web thinkers and legal minds to take a sober look at the twin forces eddying around the “brave new world” of the Internet: its existence as a free public entity, and as a platform for people to make a living through the commerce of ideas.
The paradox is that it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other.
As a crusader for free document access online, Swartz wrote in 2008 that “sharing isn’t immoral -- it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.” But he also made a distinction about respecting the law on certain information: “We need to stake stuff that’s out of copyright … we need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web.” Buy, as in pay money for them.
The felony charges accuse him of stealing material that took time and money and thought to create, which is one reason they were behind a paywall. Yet Swartz’s own intellectual property was valuable, and he didn’t always give it away; he sold Reddit to Conde Nast for what Forbes reported to be something less than $5 million.
How does that square with the security camera images of him hacking into MIT’s computer databases, allegedly to make private material public?
There is, of course, no way to know how his depression may have affected his judgment. If Swartz had wanted to practice true civil disobedience to make his point, he would have, in the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., broken the law openly, taken the files with his face uncovered, sucked up to any legal consequences and dared the nation to examine its Internet policies. He would have made that video of him hacking into the MIT system himself, not leaving it to a security camera.
Stewart Brand has been quoted far and wide to the effect that “information wants to be free,” but he told me when I interviewed him nearly three years ago that the whole quote is rather meatier and more nuanced than the bumper-sticker version.
“The statement about 'Information wants to be free' was in a paragraph that originally said, "Information wants to be expensive, and information also wants to be free." That got pared down to the more interesting part of the statement,” he said.
It’s rather like quoting only the second part of the 2nd Amendment, and leaving out the bit about the well-ordered militia. Brand understands the inherent conflict between access and ownership. That discussion nearly 30 years ago was more about crowd-sourcing software, not about using content without its creators’ consent.
As Brand told me: “In 1984, there was a debate between the hacker ethic of freeing up software to be improved by everybody, and the realization that this was one of the most remarkable moneymaking inventions ever. [The] tension between open source and commercial was just going to keep reasserting itself with each new capability of information and computer technology, and that has proved to be the case.”
This country is already engaged in a chronic low-grade war over intellectual property theft in China. It’s got another war, a pretty much undeclared one, over intellectual property rights here on the home front.
Tim Berners-Lee, one of the towering figures in human history, is the computer scientist considered the father of the World Wide Web. He chose not to patent his creation and to give it to the world.
"Who owns the Web?" he was asked during a Texas federal court case over copyright and royalties on Internet software. “We do,” he answered.
It’s the right answer. We’ve seen how broadcast licenses -- that’s the public airwaves we’re talking about -- make gazillionaires of licensees but give the public doodly-squat in terms of input, access and say-so. Berners-Lee is justly concerned about such a thing happening on the Internet.
But the outright taking of someone’s creation is not a victimless crime. What if, say, someone stole a dozen shirts from a store; would the high-minded motivation of giving them away to, say, the homeless, make the theft any less criminal?
Why, without the consent of the creators and owners, should proprietary intellectual property be any different? Why shouldn’t there be a distinction between the myriad works that have fallen out of copyright, as Swartz wrote, and closely held government documents that the government should have to either justify keeping or release, and the proprietary intellectual work that provides a living for artists, academics, writers and the like? The Napster disaster over copyright violations in peer-to-peer music file sharing proves that the matter needs more scrutiny, not less. Individuals were prosecuted and fined for illegally posting movies and music online. One of Swartz’s Harvard champions, Lawrence Lessig, wrote then in U.S. News that although “kids should not use the Internet to violate others’ rights, I oppose these failed copyright wars.”
Swartz’s family and friends say he had been driven to the edge by what they call prosecutors’ aggressive and out-of-proportion handling of the case. His Harvard defenders were outraged at how relentless they say prosecutors had been in going after Swartz.
Did the prosecutors overreach? I don’t know. If the critics are right and the feds had been as ardent in pursuing the Wall Street miscreants who brought this country’s economy to its knees, justice would have been better served. The tragic irony is that Swartz’s actions in the MIT library, and the discussions they will generate after his death, could, dismayingly, end up damaging his cause more than serving it.