Security

Aaron Swartz, activist for Internet freedom: You will be missed

Michael P. Kassner remembers how Internet censorship was narrowly averted thanks in large part to Aaron Swartz.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution seems clear. Yet:

There's a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the internet in terms of traditional things the law understands...

And:

If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights, the freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution.

Finally:

New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we'd always taken for granted.

Those quotes are from Aaron Swartz. Aaron has been called many things; boy genius, hacker, overly aggressive activist, and an emotionally troubled young man.

Regardless of what you think, Aaron and a handful of concerned activists quickly spread the word about a proposed law -- with proponents forecasting easy passage by a hitherto deadlocked Congress -- that experts of constitutional law considered a direct violation of our First Amendment rights:

Conceivably, an entire website containing tens of thousands of pages could be targeted if only a single page were accused of infringement. Such an approach would create severe practical problems for sites with substantial user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and for blogs that allow users to post videos, photos, and other materials.

The bill/s went by many names. It started out as Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act (COICA), next as Protect IP Act (PIPA), and finally as Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). You probably are most familiar with SOPA. Remember when Wikipedia and other prominent websites participated in American Censorship Day:

That unprecedented show of unity was aimed at stopping the passage of SOPA. Proposed laws like good novels have protagonists and antagonists. Wikipedia provided an overview of both sides:

  • [I]t will protect the intellectual-property market and corresponding industry, jobs and revenue, and is necessary to bolster enforcement of copyright laws, especially against foreign-owned and operated websites.
  • [T]he proposed legislation threatens free speech and innovation, and enables law enforcement to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing content posted on a single blog or webpage.

I first learned of Aaron Swartz several years ago from friend Cory Doctorow; a privacy activist and gifted science-fiction writer. It was also from Cory I learned Aaron took his own life on January 11th. Cory's tribute is particularly moving, as Cory knew Aaron for twelve of his 26 years:

I'm so sorry for Aaron, and sorry about Aaron. My sincere condolences to his parents, whom I never met, but who loved their brilliant, magnificently weird son, and made sure he always had chaperonage when he went abroad on his adventures.

My condolences to his friends, especially Quinn and Lisa, and the ones I know and the ones I don't, and to his comrades at DemandProgress. To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.

If I may, I would ask that you watch the YouTube video Cory linked of Aaron giving his now famous "How we stopped SOPA" talk last May at Freedom to Connect 2012 in Washington D.C.

It will give you an idea of how SOPA nearly became a law, and the amazing groundswell of people -- more than 325,000 -- who joined Aaron's petition drive on the Demand  Progress website created specifically to fight COICA/PIPA/SOPA.

I admire those who have the courage to publicly take a stance, and then back it up with action. To our benefit, it worked. Politicians began receiving immense pressure by a now-informed public that SOPA was a bad bill, and they quickly tabled it.

Still, Aaron cautioned us near the end of his "How we stopped SOPA" speech:

It will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake; the enemies of the "freedom to connect" have not disappeared.

Final thoughts

I keep wondering about something. If SOPA had passed, could/would websites like Demand Progress have been added to the black list?

I think we owe it to Aaron, all of those who worked tirelessly to get the word out, and finally ourselves to remain alert and challenge anything that would erode the freedoms our Founding Fathers and Mothers have fought and died for.

In his SOPA talk, Aaron mentioned numerous times he did not do it alone, other individuals and organizations played a huge role -- particularly the Electronic Freedom Foundation. I also wanted to thank Cory Doctorow for sharing his website, and Wikipedia for use of their slide.

About

Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

79 comments
Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

I've seen a ton of MIT president L. Rafael Reif associated with Stephen Heymann and it's starting to grate on my nerves. Here is a 2011 cyber crimes symposium that shows him. http://www.nelfonline.org/cases/NELF2011YearInReview.pdf Panelist description for him is - Stephen P. Heymann, Esquire, Chief of the Cybercrimes Unit in the U.S. AttorneyÂ’s Office for the District of Massachusetts Thus I'm pretty certain this was the lead prosecutor against Aaron Swartz. I just find it amazing that a "public servant" would have so little publically available.

primartcloud
primartcloud

Suicide by coercion,by either physical or psychological stress, is the implied goal of the tactic. What is torture and what are the objectives? The saddening aspect of all this is that it has been happening since the beginning of recorded history and that it is self inflicted. A colleague is promoted into management, a neighbor becomes part of the justice/political system and how it affects our personalities;the way our leaders are, and always have, played to the military (is very telling). We are all pliable drones liable to be influenced by the right carrot or toy. The neutralizing of mass action or reaction to unpopular acts or activists is the great motivator for gov't action. The reaction to the Vietnam War taught the power structure a big lesson and the different objectives of political parties is how to best neutralize anything that will upset the masses. Anything that approaches critical mass is toned down, moved to the backburners. They may have seemingly different strategies but the same goals. It's a balancing act between left and right but who controls the center? The illusions revolve around equality (socially) and the designation of value (economic). Our system has been successful for awhile, one and made some great achievements; successfully circumvented many obstacles and makeovers but all systems have had finite lives. Economic imbalances are a constant but added to the mix technological advances, the internet, and impending ecological / medical emergencies. The risks we face are great and small minds can add to the impending chaos but unfortunately that is one of the qualities necessary to advance in the economic/political arena.

bobp
bobp

What were the circumstances surrounding Aaron's "suicide?" Darker forces in the government have been know to "suicide people in the past (to murder them in a way that makes it look like suicide). The more damaging the activity of the enemy of the state, the more likely that enemy will disappear in one way or another. Was it obvious he did it to himself?

sethqbht
sethqbht

Internet is a great service for todays world. There is also some problem,[url=http://www.passcertification.com/]Unfortunately [/url] once the federal system get's their eye on you and assigns monetary damages in excess of five figures they don't let go.

tonycopp
tonycopp

Aaron's lawyer should have used the Jon Corzine defense. He didn't intend to steal the money, documents, or whatever, but don't notice the crony caps we take to make these distinctions among free citizens disappear into the noise of political campaign cash bundling.

Hollowpoint16
Hollowpoint16

Is there any question that perhaps it was not a suicide but made to appear as if young talented man took his own life? It wouldn't be the first time that's for sure. And my very deepest condolences to his family and friends. So very sad.

gjost2002
gjost2002

I'm sorry but if you steal something you are guilty of theft. Aaron was wrong to commit suicide, but it is not fair to steal from others! Aaron should have manned up and taken his punishment

brian_hensler
brian_hensler

Are they sure it was actually a suicide and not some plot to take him out of the picture?

rightjb
rightjb

I have very big questions about his death. I'm not convinced it's a conspiracy but with a former Secretary of State blatantly denying that she tried to blame a "video" for the attacks on our embassy (when all you have to do is look at CNN/ABC/NBC archives to see it) - I'm convinced we can't the lengths to which the politicians will continue to steal our freedoms for their control. Few realize that the GOP and DEMS both passed a measure (NDAA) that gives the govt the right to indefinitely detain Americans without cause. IT ALREADY PASSED. So my call and challenge to my fellow tech brothers is to BE AARON SWARTZ. The founders of this country faced similar infringements where government was trying to regulate EVERYTHING they bought, sold and buried. People gave their lives knowing that their children could live in a world where government wouldn't control everything they did. You don't like politics? Fine. Don't complain when suddenly another 10% of your paycheck is gone (which will have to be done in 2 years to pay for $10 Trillion of debt being racked up) or worse - when your "speech" is no longer free, but the government has control to shut down the internet to stop discussion on something they want to hide or pass. You don't think it's already being done? Then get educated. And get busy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=bFALonjLay0#!

tonycopp
tonycopp

when andrew carnegie sold what became us steel to jp morgan for 500 million, which is almost exactly 50 billion today, he set about to redress the denial of written learning/ best knowledge by scottish landowners who restricted library information from peasants when he grew up poor of cash in scotland. today academic and institutional, corporate players can be the scottish landowners, and they pass out DOCX files not thinking the crippling factor of not selecting the 1997-2003 format of DOC which allows free access to the 90% of the planet that hasn't found the vanishing need to upgrade. there are other ways to play the game of promoting digital democracy, and this is my small contribution. please tell 2 friends there are always a way to help if you think about it.

d3d4E4
d3d4E4

that Aaron was mainly a thief who stole something which did not belong to him. Somehow that is not that popular with the "government conspiracy" crowd...

timventura
timventura

Hopefully Aaron's sacrifice will bring awareness to the need for scholarly journals to be open repositories of science that anyone can view. By locking them down & selling papers, it reinforces a distribution-model that's 50-years out of date, and limits the ability of the public to view scientific research that they as taxpayers typically funded in the first place.

Bertram86
Bertram86

Aaron Swartz was an honest, brave and decent man who was destroyed by a state which is none of these things, and which disposed of him with no more compassion or pity than a malevolent child might squash a bug. He was not the first and will not be the last. I hope we let him live on in our hearts. John Price

BBaldwin803
BBaldwin803

It's important for folks to look at the big picture. I find that many of my "tech" friends are quite liberal in most things, that is until it comes to restrictions on the internet and "freedom of speech". I would urge us all to never forget to ask the "big picture" question of WHY? Why would the government want to have censorship over the internet? And when you look beyond this one issue is there a pattern forming of a government out of control (the "Why?" of one issue + the "Why?" of many other limitations the government seeks to place on the American people should lead one to look at this possibility). These questions and the "possibilities" of the answer to "Why?" is the very reason our founders gave us the protections from government in the first place. They understood the temptations for those in government and the inevitable corruption that follows. That is why it is so important that people like Aaron are so important! People who have the courage to stand up against those forces that seek to take away our rights. ALL of the Constitution is important as well as the 1st Amendment, the 2nd Amendment, etc All our rights are valuable, precious and should be protected. We should be just as alarmed when they come for our guns, as we are about protecting our ability to express our right to free speech, and as we are about due process, and human rights violations the list goes on and on. When the government seeks to limit or revoke ANY of our Constitutional rights we should stand up and shout "NO!". When they came for the communists, I remained silent; I was not a communist. When they locked up the social democrats, I remained silent; I was not a social democrat. When they came for the trade unionists, I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out. The question is or each of us "Do I have what it takes to stand up and fight for our rights inspire of the potential costs to me and my family?".

jackmiller
jackmiller

"My son told me about the ammunition hording and that was disconcerting." Strange comment. Seems to me the 1st and 2nd Amendments are in that order because they go hand in hand. One supports the other. It all boils down to the freedom of the individual from force on the part of govenment.

logos200
logos200

Brilliant kid with a girlfriend as well. Such a waste...

jkameleon
jkameleon

... it's impossible to know for sure. If politics is involved, police investigation is irrelevant. Probably the most infamous example of "suiciding" I'm aware of is Roberto Calvi: Hanged under the bridge, clothes stuffed with bricks, injuries to his neck were inconsistent with hanging, and he had not touched the bricks found in his pockets. Yet, authorities stubbornly insisted it was a suicide.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

the reason there is widespread contempt for the actions of Ortiz and Heymann is the fact that Aaron had made no secret of his depression. Thus most likely it was suicide. Ortiz states her office did nothing out of the ordinary. Many of the legal apologists use this to excuse Heymann and Ortiz. But staying within the rules of a system which allows such abuse of power doesn't absolve one of personal responsibility. In my mind it exacerbates culpability because at that point the only thing keeping the system in check are [b]good[/b] people. So it really isn't a conspiracy so much as a sad state of affairs in the federal judicial system.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I am glad to see that this is getting more attention than it did earlier.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

I'm pretty sure someone, somewhere would call those of us with computers guilty of theft at various points in our use of the technology. Aaron was entitled to access JSTOR. Thus not guilty of theft. And really this is the crying shame of it, because in the indictment their case of "theft" rests on him being a legitimate user and clicking the [I]Accept[/I] button for JSTOR's terms of service. Did he do wrong? I think so, and he knew it because [b]he was a legitimate user[/b]. Was it criminal? Not on the JSTOR side. Put another way if every student in the US of A at a participating university downloaded their limit of JSTOR papers, printed them out and mailed them to a single P.O. no TOS would be violated. No wire fraud would occur to trigger Fed involvement. And Aaron's end goal could be accomplished [I]legally[/I] if someone wanted to take the time & money to digitize. Which leads us to "There ain't no free lunch." Somebody has to pay somewhere, unfortunately in this case it was Aaron's life. I hope that someday, there will be a reckoning for that. For you see the theft that was committed here was of [b]a life[/b].

JCitizen
JCitizen

Which is also why I belong to several political action groups. I'll never be a big time guy like Aaron, but if enough folks did as we do, it could make a HUGE difference. C=

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

Is a fascinating one to be sure. I have read many biographies and learn new information from each one.

jkameleon
jkameleon

De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Besides, thiefs do not end up dead during the investigation.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

"thief - one who takes the property of another wrongfully." Aaron was associated with Harvard and had proper access to JSTOR through that institution. What amazes me is that the CFAA was brought into action here. It is only supposed to apply to government systems, not any computer the DOJ points to. I have dealt with the federal judicial system and it is anything but fair. How could it be, when the mere act of wanting a trial by jury mandates extra time at sentencing? Oh and that 6 month plea deal? A federal judge could have tossed that out the window and said "You will be serving 35 years, Mr. Swartz..." BTW here is JSTOR's take on this, and they "deeply regret" being dragged into this SNAFU by DOJ. http://about.jstor.org/statement-swartz

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

in charging a fee for maintaing the infrastructure which allows us the liberty of accessing those works from anywhere in the world. Bet you a donut that you could walk into any university library and get a bound copy of "tax payer" funded research at no cost (except for time/transportation, right?) What you can't do is walk out the door with the hardcopy or get it copied for free.

JCitizen
JCitizen

and I agree with it BTW. I've been saying for years, they seem to be fixated in creating as many felony crimes as they can on the books, but enforcing hardly any of them. They just seem to be interested in keeping the man down, in the gutter, and powerless.

JCitizen
JCitizen

The John Price I knew was a hero in WWII; he was a hell of a guy! v/

JCitizen
JCitizen

I first read that from someone who was nabbed by the Nazis during the war. At least that is what I remember. I think he was a gypsy; but regardless, they would have kept going after every group until there was just one - and then as evil has it - some other characteristic would have made the survivors another target.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I seem to remember the prose poem you provided. Do you know the source?

pgit
pgit

The govt has bought billions of hollow point rounds of numerous calibers in the last 6 months. The comment was not about 'we the people' hoarding amo.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

As long as we learn from it. Aaron could have done more, but let's hope we build on what he did.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I may have misunderstood, but Aaron's first encounter involved his purchasing a bunch of documents and making them public.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I applaud that you are involved and that over the years, you have brought insightful comments to TR.

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I also read the same. Can I please ask what CFAA is? I do not believe I came across that in my research.

JCitizen
JCitizen

pay a royalty to the taxpayers for all the free money they got, to develop medicine we can't afford. :ar!

JCitizen
JCitizen

but comically it might be that SO MUCH civilian hoarding is going on that there isn't any left for government operations! HA! :^0 Uncle Sugar had to buy it because it was flying off the shelves! The stores are empty of all calibers around here. Retailers aren't being supplied because the hoarders are buying it by the pallet or even by the TON!

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I also was told that he spent a great deal of money to obtain the court documents.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Not really certain if he paid, was under the impression it was freely available for a short time at a handful of public libraries rather than the usual charge of .08 cents per page. The FBI was called in to investigate but no laws were broken (as it was free access at the public library)

pgit
pgit

I would hope many of the people that frequent these forums are members of EFF. (I'd encourage folks to also replace that "E" with an "F" and search the results :) )

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

But that really begs the question of who did M.I.T go to first? In their case I would assume campus police going to municipal/state. That whole side of things doesn't make sense, because I'm pretty sure it wasn't the first time students had left "projects" in "unauthorized" places around grounds. Why didn't they treat this as trespass on the physical side? Another crying shame was the charge of "DOS" damages as those were self inflicted by the institution. Aaron didn't cut off access, M.I.T. did. I'm starting to wonder at the caliber of that institution...

Michael Kassner
Michael Kassner

I was curious as to how the interplay between the federal and state laws works.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

Because JSTOR computers were in another state, thus the federal involvement. Which still doesn't answer the question of why the CFAA related charges as I'm fairly certain JSTOR systems are not part of a govt. agency. Unfortunately once the federal system get's their eye on you and assigns monetary damages in excess of five figures they don't let go. I would assume MA computer fraud law would be more understanding considering the reputation of MIT. Otherwise a majority of engineering students would find themselves facing Ortiz & Heymann.

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