When the profiteers in Hollywood and Corporate America tried to wall-up and censor the Internet last year with SOPA and PIPA, activists needed a spark to fight back against this assault on the free and open web.
And Aaron Swartz was there.
The internet trailblazer and activist, who had already contributed such things to the web as an early version of the RSS feed and Reddit, stood up and joined the vanguard in this movement. He co-founded the organization, Demand Progress, which was instrumental in leading the largest online protest in the history of the Internet against SOPA and PIPA. Thanks to this effort, on January 18th, 2012, tens of thousands of websites blacked out, and ultimately, SOPA and PIPA were defeated by this online grassroots activism.
Today, that same internet is “blacked out” with remembrances and obituaries of Aaron Swartz, who took his life over the weekend. And in each of those remembrances, Aaron is described as a spark that made things happen. And for the rest of us who still believe, as Aaron did, in a free and open internet and a compassionate and just nation (a message he often espoused on our show, The Big Picture), we can only hope he provides the same sort of spark in death that he did in life.
He was never afraid to talk about the depression he battled most of his life, often giving eloquent and deeply personal insight into how difficult it is to fight this disease. Ultimately, Aaron lost this battle with depression just like so many other Americans who never receive the help they need in a nation that doesn’t consider healthcare, especially mental healthcare, a basic human right.
But the depression alone didn’t kill Aaron. In a statement released over the weekend, Aaron’s family placed the blame on our Department of Justice, which was prosecuting Aaron for an incident that happened on the campus of MIT back in 2011.
Aaron snuck into a utility closet on MIT’s campus, plugged a computer into the network and began downloading millions of academic journals that were stored behind a pay-wall belonging to the online database JSTOR.
Aaron likely knew this was illegal, though the expert witness for Aaron’s defense, Alex Stamos, argues that Aaron’s actions may not have been criminal after all. Regardless, Aaron was an activist who was willing to challenge the status quo of corporate welfare copyright laws that restricted the free flow of information – from academic journals to music and movies – on the internet. And he was willing to blur the lines of legality in this effort.
In fact, Aaron was acting in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson who, himself, was not too keen on the idea of heavy-handed patents on ideas and intellectual property. As he wrote in 1813, “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”
Jefferson then concluded, “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody.”
Given the activism we’ve seen on the Internet over the last few years, one could conclude that, just as Jefferson described, patent and copyright laws should be changed “according to the will and convenience of the society.” This was one of Aaron’s pursuits.
That’s not to justify Aaron’s crime, but instead to put it in some much-needed context. There are gray-haired lawmakers and corporate suits writing laws that no longer make sense, given how the vast majority of this new generation actually uses the internet. And, arguably, we’re nearing a tipping point in which this disconnect will be untenable.
This might explain why the Department of Justice reacted to Aaron’s MIT antics in the way that it did. Rather than cede ground in this upcoming struggle, the powers that be wanted to squash the struggle from the get-go by making an example out of Aaron.
Despite it being a victimless crime, and JSTOR itself settling the matter with Aaron, the Department of Justice threw the book at him. He was charged with multiple crimes and faced the possibility of serving decades in prison –a harsher punishment than most killers, bank robbers, child pornographers, and terrorist sympathizers get. The Secret Service even involved itself in the matter. And at the urging of the U.S. Attorney for the Massachusetts district, Carmen Ortiz, Aaron was looking at the very real possibility of spending much of the rest of his life in prison.
As Aaron’s family said in a statement, his death was the result of, “an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims."
Aaron was an activist, not a murderer. The punishment for his crime should have reflected this reality, but it didn’t. Instead, Aaron was dogged to death by an overzealous Justice Department that targets activists and whistleblowers with all its fury, while turning a blind eye to actual criminals - thieves and murderers - on Wall Street and in Corporate America.
This is the exact same sort of prosecutorial overreach we’re now getting used to in a nation that more and more resembles a police state. It’s a nation where soldiers like Bradley Manning, whistleblowers like John Kiriakou, politicians like former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman who dare to take on Karl Rove, and medical marijuana growers receive the full brunt of the American Justice system and suffer dearly for their crimes or non-crimes.
But at the same time, banksters who steal billions, and corporate executives who are responsible for the deaths of their employees on oil rigs and in mine shafts never see a day in jail.
Remember when Conservative faux-journalist, James O’Keefe and his colleagues walked into a sitting United States Senator’s office and tried to wiretap her phones? O’Keefe got three years of probation. But Aaron’s crime was worth of 30 years and a one million dollar fine?
It’s clear: if you are a right-winger defending the oligarchs of Corporate America, then the ustice Department gives you a break. But if you're trying to speak truth to America and protect the common man’s access to information and economic opportunity, then you're treated as an enemy of the state.
The Occupy movement drew attention to this two-tiered, corrupt justice system. Just as it gave attention to the threats to a free and open internet, and just as it gave attention to the broader struggle underway in an America taken over by Wall Street and corporate executives who are out to destroy what’s left of the middle class.
In Aaron’s death, all of these injustices again confront us. And, based on what we’ve seen so far on the internet in the days since Aaron’s death, it’s clear that the progressive online community will not let Aaron’s fight be forgotten.
Often out of the tragedy of death comes a spark to make lives better for the living. We saw that play out in Tunisia, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest the kleptocratic rule of his government and bring attention to the suffering of his generation. Within weeks, Tunisia’s oppressive government was toppled by largely nonviolent actions of average citizens. So, too, were Egypt’s and Libya’s. The Arab Spring was born.
Let’s hope that Aaron’s death will be just like his life – a spark for nonviolent revolutionary change to bring about a more just, freer, and more equal America.