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Lessons To Be Learnt From Aaron Swartz

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By Charumati Haran:

The world of technology lost one of its foremost crusaders on the 11th of January this year — Aaron Swartz. For those who don’t know him, Aaron Swartz was a gifted American computer programmer and internet activist. From a young age he was interested in computers and the internet. At the age of 14, he collaborated with experts and became one of the authors of an early version of RSS. He was an important figure in Reddit, a social networking tool. In later years, he became better known as a campaigner for open access to information and net neutrality. He was the founder of Demand Progress, which is similar to a political pressure group. It was instrumental in preventing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two highly controversial US legislations, along with many others. Aaron was also involved in many other projects such as Open Library and the Creative Commons content licensing structure.

Aaron Swartz

In January 2011, Swartz was arrested for downloading roughly 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR (a digital library) using MIT’s data network. These articles were only available on subscription basis and he presumably wanted to make them freely available. If he had been convicted, he would have had 13 felony counts, more than 35 years in prison and up to $1million in fines.

He was considered a legend by those who supported the hacking and open access movements. His apparent suicide shocked and saddened the tech. word with many leading figures like Tim-Berners Lee expressing their grief. While this incident may have had more of an impact in the US than in India, we must take lessons from it. India might face the same problems tomorrow. This whole incident leaves us with three crucial issues to discuss:

1. Open access and copyrights — In simple economic terms, copyrights and patents exist to provide incentive to people to produce original content. They give the creator of the content the right to profit from it. However, with the arrival of internet on the scene, the system was thrown into disarray. It became so much easier to share high-quality files at virtually no cost. It all started with Napster offering free downloads of music. This has now been extended to books, movies, video games and expensive software. Many of us have downloaded such items, just not on the scale that Aaron did. What should be discussed are new laws on copyrights: is it possible to enforce such a law in the open sharing culture? Should there be open access to all information for the benefit of the public? How would the creators of original content be compensated for their hard work if there is open access against their wishes?

Let us consider a recent case from Delhi: the controversy over allowing students of Delhi University to use photocopied ‘readings’ for their course material and letting photocopiers sell bound readings for profit. With no watertight laws on this issue, it is difficult to debate the ethics and practicality of solutions. If the course material requires expensive books, all students cannot afford them or get them from libraries. On the other hand, the point of the copyright law is to sufficiently reward the author for his efforts.

2. Youth and stress — Aaron Swartz was 26 years old. The introduction of this article gave only a partial list of his accomplishments. He was considered one of the brightest young minds in tech. and obviously had a lot of potential. His brilliance and determination speaks volumes of what he might have achieved had he still been alive. He could have been a Mark Zuckerberg or a Steve Jobs. While his legal troubles may have led to his suicide, he had also been struggling with depression for many years, which he described vividly on his blog. It is heartbreaking to think that stress or unhappiness, whatever the cause, would drive a young man to take his life.

In India, we often get to hear of the stress and academic pressure on students. Cut-offs are shooting ever higher as the demand for quality education exceeds the supply of seats. In many cases, quality falls below par and students are forced to take expensive coaching. Many students have to migrate and stay alone in other cities for their education or to handle family responsibilities. While the opportunities available to the youth have expanded, the expectations from them have also grown. An ambitious student has to be excellent in academics and extra-curriculars. Newspapers carry stories of students committing suicide due to ragging or taking to crime from pressure. We’ll never get to know how much more they would have accomplished. The largest segment of India’s population is the youth. It is high time that something was done to curb the stress faced by the youth and give them a more supportive environment, say through counselling, that nurtures their potential.

3. Prosecutorial overreach and internet — It is interesting to note that while JSTOR itself decided not to pursue its case against Aaron and settled with him out of court, the government continued to pursue the case. Many consider this an attempt by the government and FBI to make an example of him, since he had escaped charges on a similar case in the past. The potential penalty was hugely disproportionate considering the alleged crime. While it is true that Swartz worked against the system instead of within it, much of the online community was extremely critical of his federal prosecution and blamed it for his suicide.

Prosecutorial overreach refers to the prosecutor being excessively harsh in levelling charges, to the point of ensuring the accused gets a much harsher punishment than he deserved. Court cases put an accused’s normal life on hold. They are stressful, expensive and time-consuming. In India in particular, court cases also carry a lot of social stigma. Even if a person is acquitted of his charges, he or she will find a negative stigma associated with them for most of their lives. Prosecutorial overreach can happen for a number of reasons: difference in socio-economic status of accuser and accused, the law on the issue being ill-defined, high-profile case etc. Let us look at a very relevant example: The arrest of 2 girls in Mumbai for a post they made on Facebook. Not only did this bring to light the dangerously vague phrasing of clause 66A, it also reminded us that in some cases, police power can be misused for personal gains. This is a worrying thought when one considers that laws have not kept pace with the internet. Consider the arrest of Professor Ambikesh Mohapatra for lampooning Mayawati. The professor faced gross humiliation and no action was taken against the police officers who carried out the arrest. Who gets to decide what defamation by internet is? Does sharing something already in circulation make you a criminal? How does freedom of speech exist on the internet? All of these are important issues that are yet to be decided, but until then, it seems that in recent times, law-enforcers are taking the law into their own hands.

To conclude, Aaron Swartz was an icon. One may or may not agree with his views. But if the pen is mightier than the sword, then an idea will not be easily suppressed. His ideas will live on in his followers. Any valuable lessons we learn should live on in our hearts. When the youth seize their power to take action and do what is right, progress is inevitable.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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