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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  1. #1 Stan 18 Jan 13

    Will the great US of A upholder of morality, democracy and freedom please prosecute MIT, its attorneys and all those linked with this tragic event for causing wrongful death if not culpable homicide!

    Aaron probably never read Tagore - perhaps he did, brilliant as he was - but in taking the articles from JSTOR all he did was live up to Tagore's prayer for India

    ’...where knowledge is free and the head is held high...into that heaven of freedom my father let my country awake’.

    Knowledge generated through public funds becomes the private property of those with money. Much like Windows became the property of Bill Gates and Microsoft.

    What Aaron stood for, fought for and died for was freedom from the tyrannical power of those with money to buy and own whatever they choose - whether it be our knowledge, our thoughts (IPR), our food, our seeds, our land, our water and soon I suppose our air!

    May Aaron's tragic death not be in vain. A true hero - up there with Che, Gandhi and Mandela and all those who fought for freedom and justice. He did it his way - the way of the 21st century. The new millennium. And those of us who are from the old millennium could not understand him and what he was trying to do. For that he died. We killed him.

  2. #2 Louise Ely 19 Jan 13

    So was reading your article - v upsetting story. Still digesting impact of such a disproportionate response to a valiant individual when so many creeps in the banking world have not been brought to justice etc. as you rightly point out. All wrong. I think the world is run by psychopaths and people with narcissistic personality disorder!


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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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