Mar 1 2013

Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

An irreplaceable activist for freedom of information

Aaron Swartz (cc photo: Doc Searls)

Aaron Swartz (cc photo: Doc Searls)

It’s always difficult to write about a death. If it’s after a lifetime of accomplishments, how do you sum that up in a few brief paragraphs? When a life has been cut cruelly short, it’s even worse—trying hopelessly to convey the sense of lost possibilities.

With Aaron Swartz, who died on January 11 by his own hand, you have the worst of both worlds. At the age of 26, he had already achieved so much in so many different arenas as to baffle an obituary writer: taking part in creating the RSS protocol when he was just 14 years old, working on the Creative Commons licensing system, helping to launch the social media site Reddit, promoting the Open Library to facilitate book access, co-founding the civil liberties group Demand Progress, leading the fight against the draconian Stop Online Piracy Act.

But the crushing realization that his death brought was that everything Aaron had done so far was just the prelude to what he would have gone on to do. Tributes to Aaron by those who knew him well—Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing, 1/12/13), Lawrence Lessig (Lessig Blog, 1/12/13), Quinn Norton (Quinn Said, 1/12/13)—give a glimpse of the absolutely irreplaceable way that Aaron saw the world. His skills, his vision, his energy, his generosity: There was no one else who had that combination. And now no one does.

Whatever personal issues Aaron struggled with, the responsibility for his death lies with a criminal system that persecuted him without justice or mercy for an act of civil disobedience: downloading articles en masse from JSTOR, a nonprofit group that serves to safeguard the profits of the media corporations that have a stranglehold on scholarly publishing.

The system by which publishers extort astronomical fees for access to knowledge they didn’t create is unconscionable (Extra!, 1–2/99), as was the Justice Department’s response to Aaron’s challenge to it: threatening him with decades in prison and a seven-figure fine, under the theory, as U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz (Wired, 7/19/11) put it, that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Indicting Aaron for computer fraud was like indicting Rosa Parks for carjacking. The Obama administration can forgive torturers, and it can forgive financial fraud that brought an economy to its knees. Trying to liberate information, it seems, is the one crime it’s unable to forgive.

Among many other things, Aaron was a terrific media critic, and Extra! is proud to have published two of his pieces. His article “Rachel Carson, Mass Murderer?,” from September/October 2007, debunked the canard that concern over the environmental effects of pesticides is responsible for millions of human deaths. The New Yorker’s Caleb Crain (1/13/13), in an appreciation of Aaron, called the piece “intelligent and heartfelt,” and said it helped him start thinking of its author as “a new kind of public intellectual.” You can hear Aaron discussing his Rachel Carson piece on CounterSpin (10/12/07).

The other piece Aaron wrote for us was “Is Undercover Over?” (Extra!, 3–4/08), about establishment media’s disparagement of the use of undercover reporting to expose serious wrongdoing. Aaron came out strongly for the right to go under the radar in order to serve the public good—a principle that I suspect he would still stand by, despite the world of trouble it landed him in.