New Internationalist

A tribute to Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz was an activist for internet freedom and co-founder of Reddit Creative Commoners, under a CC License

Another tragedy. Another twenty-something, Aaron Swartz, hounded to an early death by the cruel, unfair world we live in. His picture on the web shows a young, nerdy, likeable looking young man. His laptop radiates light, creating a halo-like effect around his head. It’s a tribute to the way his admirers regard him.

Aaron was totally committed to fighting for freedom of information. His relentless advocacy campaign for internet freedom, social justice and Wall Street reform was legendary. He was not a sneaky thief hacking into peoples’ bank accounts. His was a battle for independence. He was proud of being a hacktivist and he declared his mission to the world. He was doing this not for profit. But because he was young, idealistic and passionate about justice and freedom. And for this he died at 26.

Aaron Swartz‘s name and photo currently dominates the web as the world, with his millions of fans, discusses his tragic, avoidable death. That is cold comfort to his immediate family. Aaron was a child prodigy. He started reading at three years old and at five could read the New York Times. The boy was already famous at 14 when he invented the software behind RSS, the information distribution service. At 19, Aaron produced a project to create the online news and entertainment giant Reddit.

Aaron would probably be proud that moral debate is still raging in the US. What kind of warped legal system allows bankers and corporate CEOs who have stolen pensioners’ life-savings, leaving them penniless and poor after a life-time of hard work, to walk away scot-free or with huge severance deals and other packages? How do governments prop up a financial system which has ruined entire families, old people and ordinary tax-payers, yet threaten a brilliant young boy who devotes his life to fighting corruption, with prison and a million dollar fine? How did the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) continue to prosecute a famous public-spirited genius?

Aaron’s father, Bob Swartz told the Los Angeles Times his son ‘was hounded to his death by a system and a set of attorneys that still don’t understand the nature of what they did. And they destroyed my son by their callousness and inflexibility.’ The grieving family stated: ‘Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.’

Aaron faced federal trial for what he saw as a political act. In 2010, he accessed MIT to download millions of academic articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit database service. The research had been paid for with taxpayer funds. He wrote in a 2008 manifesto, so the information should be available to the public. Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffmanm, told the media, ‘the possibility of a prison sentence and the prospect of asking friends and supporters for money to fight the charges’ loomed over him.

There is burning anger globally that a young man who fought so fiercely for justice, died ironically, because of the injustice and sheer, brutal callousness of a flawed justice system. A brilliant article on The Atlantic spells out the stupidity of the prosecution against Aaron.

‘Everything gets colored by the sadness,’ Aaron once wrote. ‘You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none.’

The world is a poorer place without him.

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