Aaron Swartz, open data and online civil disobedience
I never met Aaron Swartz, didn’t know him. But that my Facebook timeline is full of the most brilliant activists I know grieving his premature death shows how brilliant he was, how much he gave.
The news came to me in the form of a status update from the person who taught me the words ‘open source software’. He described Aaron as “the first martyr of the open data movement”. But soon, climate activist, workers’ rights activists – people who make it their business to challenge all kinds of oppression – were expressing their shock and sorrow. It seems we shall all have to work a little harder without him.
Whilst I had never come across Aaron, I do know his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. She is an impressive and amusing American organiser who took me for a drink in London one day to discuss an idea she had. Next time she was in the country, she stayed a couple of nights on our sofa and had made her idea had become reality. I doubt the knowledge that she carries with her the thoughts of so many will be any solace.
In a statement released on Saturday, Taren and Aaron’s family said his suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”. He was being pursued by a US prosecutor. His crime? Trespassing at MIT and downloading huge numbers of documents from an academic journal – Jstor – to which he had already bought access. Jstor had said the case shouldn’t proceed on their behalf. Despite this, Aaron was being threatened with decades in jail, with living forever as a convicted felon.
Aaron’s previous activism and civil disobedience online had included being a leading figure in the battle against the SOPA internet freedom crackdown; and sharing huge amounts of legal data, so that Americans don’t have to pay to have access to the case law by which they are ruled.
Other than offering profound condolences, there are two things I want to say about this case. The first is that open data must become a cause for more than those who know how to programme computer code. The growing extent to which only the rich have access to the new knowledge of our civilisation is terrifying. We mustn’t see the liberation of this information as a fringe interest for people who build websites and live in a distant land called ‘cyberspace’. In so far as today’s economy is built on research, figures, and facts, sharing them is as crucial as it was for the Diggers to share the land of St George’s Hill.
The second thing which strikes me is this: when the state hits people hard, absurdly hard, it is worth considering why. And when we see many, many cases of the state hammering with bewildering force people who have done similar things, it’s worth considering whether there is a systemic reason for this. Because while he was clearly an exceptional person, his treatment conforms to a rule: any crime committed online will be punished much more harshly than its offline equivalent.
It is easy to dismiss this as being a product of judges not understanding the internet. When two British men were sentenced to four years in jail for posting on Facebook that others should riot, I can only assume that the judge felt this was somehow, because it was in a magical land called ‘cyber’, much worse than if they had put a poster up on a wall.
But I think it’s about much more than old, clueless judges. It is about setting the rules for a new space before we do. Because alongside Aaron sit Gary Mackinnon, and Breanna Manning, and countless others. Or consider this. Here is the definition of ‘cyberterrorism’ agreed upon by the National Conference of State Legislatures in America (of which everyone in a state legislature in the USA is a member):
“The use of information technology by terrorist groups and individuals to further their agenda. This can include use of information technology to organize and execute attacks against networks, computer systems and telecommunications infrastructures, or for exchanging information or making threats electronically. Examples are hacking into computer systems, introducing viruses to vulnerable networks, web site defacing, Denial-of-service attacks, or terroristic threats made via electronic communication.”
Let’s consider that definition for a second. If an individual hacks into a computer system, then this is the equivalent of breaking and entering. Web defacing is, I would suppose, rather like graffiti. Denial of service attacks are the online version of lots of activists sitting in a road so that people can’t get into a building. These are all illegal acts. But to call them terrorism is absurd.
And it seems clear to me that the desire to hit out more heavily at online civil disobedience than at that offline is not because the authorities don’t understand it, but because they do. Corporations understand the value of knowledge and the vulnerability of communications systems. And so they employ the state to protect these at all cost.
In Aaron’s case the response from the state, though morally outrageous, seems to have been proportionate: proportionate to the threat he and those like him posed to corporate America. If we wish to pose a similar threat, we shall all have to learn from him. It’s a great shame he won’t be there to teach us. We can start by reading his Guerilla Open Access manifesto.