Lessons To Be Learnt From Aaron Swartz

Posted on January 17, 2013 in Specials

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.