Why Swartz's suicide should scare you

Reddit developer and RSS founder's indictment is a sure sign that governments, including the US government, are scared of people getting to know too much on the internet. It also tells us that internet governance bordering on a totalitarianism regime is here to stay

shivangi-narayan

Shivangi Narayan | January 15, 2013



The 26-year-old genius was found dead in his New York apartment where he committed suicide. Involved in the development of Reddit and founder of RSS feeds, here is why his sudden suicide should caution us all.

Aaron Swartz wanted everyone, even those without a fancy university education and its privileges to access journals, to access information online. In turn, however, Swartz was indicted to have stolen a number academic articles from J Stor, the famous online journal subscription service through MIT servers to make them freely available online. J Stor did not press any charges against Swartz.

The thought process behind his action was clear and he had written it down in his ‘manifesto’ in 2008. Swartz wrote: “"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations."

His trial was to start this year and if convicted, he would have to spend 35 years in jail and give $1 million as fine.

For Swartz, people should be able to access knowledge because people with knowledge make better societies. Even as a teenager, all of 14 years of age, Swartz had helped create the RSS feed and was also involved in the development of the social news website known as Reddit. He also co-founded the Demand Progress group which works for the cause of internet censorship.

He had also devised a way to post federal court documents online and make them available for free; earlier the government charged a few cents for every download through the electronic archive system, Pacer. With his program, 20 percent of all the court papers were made available online through the public libraries when the US government stopped it by shutting the library access.

Defendants of his case claim that he did not “steal” the online journals as MIT servers are open enough to make these journals available to everyone on campus. Alex Stamos, in his blog writes that Swartz action can be called “inconsiderate” at the most, but not illegal or unethical. “It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence.”

Swartz stood for transparency; for access to knowledge; for freedom of the common man or woman on the internet. The internet for him was a medium of communication for one and all and no special access to information gave anyone undue advantage over the other. However, all he got was the possibility of a long sentence and a million dollar as fine.

The indictment of Swartz should come as a signal of caution to everyone who uses the internet anywhere in the world today. It indicates how the powers that are, including the law and the government are ready to do everything in their capacity to undermine people’s use of a hugely potent resource of information. Swartz’s indictment is a sure sign that governments, including the US government which might be touted as the best that there can be, are scared of people getting to know too much on the internet. Too much, which might be unhealthy for the states to function efficiently.

Should a young internet activist who downloaded many articles from J Stor and wanted to distribute them freely be punished for 35 years? A million students in the world have articles downloaded from J Stor that they share with people everywhere. Does that amount to an indictment? Certainly not.

Swartz was not hounded for the alleged ‘stolen’ articles. He was hounded because he believed that the internet could not be a place that was governed by a few people. He wanted it to be a medium where people mingled freely and exchanged information with each other without any proprietorship. A similar debate is going on in India, where the section 66 A of the IT amendment act has severe and unjustified punishments for people who express their views online. People are being punished for sending cartoons to their mailing lists and expressing their views on Facebook.

Swartz suicide should tell us that internet governance bordering to a totalitarianism regime is here to stay. That the larger powers will not bow down without giving a strong fight to those who want to protect the medium from all intrusions. His death indicates that the fight is going to be a long, hard one and that there are many chances, unless people know their rights and know them well, that the latter would lose.

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