Internet activists around the world are shocked and saddened by the death of Aaron Swartz, a technological wunderkind and true believer in informational freedom. Aaron’s passing is made more troubling by the fact that he was only 26 and the subject of an aggressive legal campaign by federal prosecutors against him. There were indicators of depression — an affliction likely made worse by the severity the charges he faced for breaking into JSTOR, an M.I.T.-hosted platform for scientific and literary journals from which Aaron downloaded some 4.8 million documents with a goal towards making them available to a broader public.
I did not know Aaron beyond email. Many in my orbit counted him as a friend; they have my sincere condolences. It’s hard not to be wowed by his accomplishments, several of which occurred at an impossibly young age: he co-created RSS at 14, later built the system that would become Reddit and co-founded Demand Progress, an organization promoting social justice issues via online campaigns.
Many of Aaron’s peers and contemporaries have paid tribute to his life and accomplishments, including Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, Tim Berners-Lee and more. These statements say more about the man than I possibly ever could.
Aaron’s death should not be politicized, but it does bring to the fore some issues worthy of respectful consideration. One is the scourge of depression, which is profoundly damaging to both its sufferers and their communities. I won’t be tackling that one today. Another is how best to order an increasingly digital society within a range of competing concerns.
We must also be critical of the legal war of attrition waged by governments against those for whom it is believed an example must be made, and remain steadfast in our demands for accountability when it comes to our own rights.
I am sensitive to the fact that this is a difficult time for many, and I by no means intend this post to in any way diminish Aaron’s triumphs and struggles. I’m simply trying to organize my own thoughts as they relate to the broader goal of democratic access to information.
When I first arrived in Washington in 2007, I was thrilled to be involved in a movement to ensure that our emerging digital culture would not be co-opted by a handful of corporate interests with the clear intent to monopolize access to information and its conveyance. I still believe this is a fight worth fighting, or else I’d have become a rodeo clown (which might be more lucrative).
The game has changed a bit since I got here, or at least it’s gotten more complex. Preserving access to information remains crucial, and not just in the US, where we take for granted how readily we can communicate ideas. Freedom itself depends on this exchange. There are also economic benefits. In the old days, a small business in a developing nation would need to buy an expensive suite of software to get itself up and running (or, more likely, acquire a pirated copy). Today, with the global internet and cloud computing, many, if not most, of these essential tools can be obtained free of charge online. Higher education is also on the verge of being disrupted, as courses become accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It’s hard to argue against the tremendous advantage to society represented by these developments. To my observation, Aaron embodied the push — sometimes aggressive — to liberate information from its analog-era shackles.
A noble cause, but not without its dangers.
First of all, we live in a society of laws. Just because the majority of these laws were developed in an era without sophisticated global information networks does not mean that laws should not exist. A future where access to information is not just the province of a privileged few is one to which I wholeheartedly subscribe. But there must be a balance. Governments and corporations that perceive, rightly or wrongly, that their proprietary information is at risk are more likely to respond disproportionately. This could result in greater restrictions on information access.
Furthermore, some information has a burden to be proprietary. For example: I am not one to interpret copyright strictly as property, but I do support its continued existence. Why? Because the protections afforded to expression can lead to the continued investment in new expression. Somewhat conversely, I believe that access to our shared cultural heritage via an expanded commons is a great idea. Technology represents a wonderful opportunity to better organize and archive that which ultimately belongs to all humanity. Encouraging the development of these systems must not come at the expense of cultural production, however, which is why I continue to advocate for reasonable copyright terms that incentivize creators while offering basic assurances that their works will not be detrimentally exploited.
Other forms of information can be considered proprietary. Our personal data is increasingly viewed as integral to our selfhood. It is also not outside the bounds of reason to see certain types of governmental and corporate information as worthy of security. A black and white view of access vs. retriction will not be useful in solving the many interconnected riddles of the digital age. Government has lost its monopoly on security, which is all the more reason to be mindful of our tactics. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t push — it’s just that recent history (remember the Patriot Act?) illustrates that government response may be severe and enduring.
With a fourth amendment that has been rendered essentially meaningless, we are right to demand governmental transparency when it comes to our digital liberties. This job gets much harder when there is justification for heavy-handed intervention on the network.
Likewise, we must remain cognizant of how corporations can make use of our data for profit, at global scale. If all information is open and accessible — including our own — who benefits? Surely, there is a public and consumer good. But should there be limits to the commercial exploitation of user data? These are questions that must be asked, even as we seek to establish a more transparent society built on the democratic exchange of ideas.
The world is rapidly transforming, becoming more interconnected and simultaneously alienating. I take comfort in the fact that it can still be affected by an individual. Aaron Swartz was a visionary with incredible talents for using technology as a tool for broader understanding.
We honor Aaron not just by celebrating his vision and abilities, but also by being realistic about what we are facing. Achieving a more just and participatory world is possible, but requires patience and commitment. It requires pressure as well as understanding. Most of all, it requires a desire to leave the world a better in better shape than that which you found it. A desire that Aaron Swartz had in spades.