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Why we should remember Aaron Swartz - the prodigy who wanted information to be free

I agree, as Swartz wrote in 2008, that "there is no justice in following unjust laws", and the movement to protect the free internet from corporate and political interests is urgent.

The young Mozart, according to legend, ended one of his earliest concerts by bursting into tears. The audience had erupted in rapturous applause at the spectacle of a tiny little boy playing sonatas with the proficiency of an adult master. So why was Mozart crying? “They were only applauding for me,” the boy told his father. “They weren’t listening to the music.”

I was reminded of this story while reading the collected writings of the campaigner and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, published in January in paperback as The Boy Who Could Change the World (Verso). Urban legends follow child prodigies as reliably as the FBI follows young men who mess around with computers, and, to some of the finest minds in technology, Swartz will always be the brilliant teenager who started to design software and websites when he was still at school. The collection, along with a new biography of him, The Idealist by Justin Peters, cannot help romanticising Swartz’s early achievements and his early death.

Aaron Swartz was 26 years old and had been pursued by the FBI for two years when he hanged himself at his home in New York in 2013. He had been charged with the victimless crime of copying hundreds of thousands of articles from academic journals – usually restricted, at great cost, to members of universities – through the servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Copying a document is not, as the prosecutors insisted, equivalent to stealing a wad of bills, for the simple reason that the original document can still be used. Nonetheless, Swartz was facing years in prison, a felony conviction and the end of his dreams of working in public policy.

His life was shaped, as Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen observe in the collection, “by an ethical belief that information should be shared freely and openly”. Swartz was a leader in the “free culture” movement, a polymath who had already led and won a global battle to prevent the privatisation of swaths of the internet under the terms of the Stop Online Piracy Act in the United States. He could have chosen an easy life of influence and affluence in Silicon Valley or, perhaps, in academia. But Swartz could not live with, or in, systems that were inefficient and unfair. And he was punished for it.

In his short life, Aaron Swartz appears never to have met an institution that could hold his respect and patience. He dropped out of high school and Stanford University and walked out of projects and start-ups that did not meet his standards of efficiency and clarity of purpose. He had a horror of systems that did not work as they should on any scale; an obvious impatience with inefficiency, bureaucracy and slowness of thought seeps through both his words and others’ words about him.

We know how to handle very clever children who do as they are told. The problem comes when prodigies start to question the systems in which they are asked to operate. In a blog entry that is not included in the new collection, Swartz quotes Martin Luther King’s speech about being proud to be “maladjusted” to a system that was unjust. The same traits that made him an inspired computer programmer and thinker – his refusal to accept broken and archaic systems of thought, infrastructure and government – were the reason he was pursued by the forces of law and order.

I never met Swartz, but I am close to a number of people who knew him well and feel his absence keenly. I believe that communication should not be hampered by states or bartered by corporations. I believe that the early web’s promise of open and easy access to information, whether it be government records, academic journals or creative works, is something to treasure and protect against what Swartz called the “private theft of public culture”. I agree, as Swartz wrote in 2008, that “there is no justice in following unjust laws”. Information is power and, accordingly, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.

You do not have to have a particular interest in copyright law to recognise the pettiness of the US government’s hounding of a vulnerable young man who happened to believe passionately that information should be free. In generations to come, Swartz will doubtless be remembered as an early martyr of the free culture and transparency movements, along with Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Jeremy Hammond and many others.

After spending 48 hours immersed in writing by and about Swartz, I found myself shaken and angry: full of rage at the US government’s small-minded crusade against the changes brought about by the information age, a crusade as doggedly pointless as the 16th-century Catholic Church’s efforts to quash the printing press.

These books are not perfect; you can see the sainthood of Aaron Swartz being written in real time, excising the difficulties and inconsistencies of his personality. Peters’s biography strips his story of its most contentious political implications. Likewise, Verso’s decision to put his age at the time of writing at the head of every piece cheapens the work, drawing repeated attention to the phenomenon of his youth.

The dawn of the Information Age is not just about new ideas but about new paradigms of communication and control, and the movement to protect the free internet from the interests of governments and corporations is urgent and ongoing. Martyrs have a way of clarifying the purpose of a movement. For this reason, if no other, Swartz might not have been upset by this particular use of his life’s work.

To honour properly what Swartz and others like him stand for, it is not enough for us to applaud the prodigy cut down too soon. We must also make sure we are listening to the music. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 03 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis

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Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.