The Aaron Swartz lesson: how undeveloped laws target the vulnerable

A tragedy, with a powerful moral.

On Friday 11 January, Aaron Swartz was found dead at his apartment in New York. He was 26. The following day, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, tweeted: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

The response to his death by suicide was overwhelming but unsurprising – Swartz had been an internet legend since his teenage years. At 14, he helped to put together RSS – technology that is part of the backbone of the web. While still in his teens, he played a vital role in creating Reddit, the hugely popular networking news site, and shared the profits when it was later bought by Condé Nast.

Swartz was a hero to activists pushing for open access to content on the internet, working to create a free public library and founding Demand Progress – a pressure group that successfully campaigned against the Stop Online Piracy Act. He was also an inspiration to many.

His friend Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard professor, wrote: “He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?”

Then there were the stunts. At one point, Swartz made about 20 per cent of US case law available on the web for free. Although it was officially in the “public domain”, the system that categorised it – Pacer – charged a fee to everyone who tried to access it. Activists created Recap, a database that collected what people had already bought and gave it to others for free. Through this – devised at his own expense – Swartz moved a large amount of data on to the web. He was pursued by the FBI but it dropped the charges. The rumour was it bore a grudge.

The big problems started when Swartz crept into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a laptop and started downloading millions of academic journal articles from the subscription-only service JSTOR. At the time he was charged, he hadn’t yet distributed them. And he never intended to make money from any of it.

However, US government prosecutors hit him with the harshest possible penalties. Swartz ended up facing more than 30 years in jail, trapped by laws that had been designed to deal with organised criminals, bank robbers and those who steal corporate information for profit.

“Stealing is stealing,” said the federal attorney Carmen Ortiz, speaking for the prosecution at the time, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Her phrasing echoes the much-mocked anti-piracy ads that begin “You wouldn’t steal a car . . . You wouldn’t steal a handbag” and feature sirens wailing and cops approaching as a schoolchild tries to download a copy of what is probably Mean Girls off Pirate Bay. Those ads are mocked for a reason. Downloading a film (or an article) is self-evidently not the same as stealing one from a shop. For one thing, the precise laws governing online behaviour are ill-defined and badly enforced. And when the laws are enforced, it seems random, unforeseeable and badly out of proportion.

Graham Smith, an IT and copyright lawyer for the international legal firm Bird & Bird, says that the law governing the digital world is very much “in a state of development” and, as a result, “One should be very careful about criminalising things online. Criminal law is a blunt instrument.”

But we have not been careful with these laws – in the UK as well as in the US – and they seem to have hit only the vulnerable. Take Glenn Mangham, a British student who hacked into Facebook just to see if he could. He did nothing with the information. “It was to expose vulnerabilities in the system,” Mangham told the crown court. He was jailed for eight months.

One of the saddest ironies of this story is that Swartz spent his life trying to show everyone just how unreasonable laws can become when they are rigidly applied to the internet. Last year, he identified an ongoing “battle” over copyright law, “a battle to define everything that happens on the internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands”. If the battle was left unresolved, Swartz said, “New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we’d always taken for granted.”

His suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”, his family said in a statement on 12 January. A tragedy, with a powerful moral.

Aaron Swartz had been an internet legend since his teenage years, Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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YouTube announces new measures against extremism – but where do they leave the far right?

Videos by alt-right commentators have arguably radicalised many online. Will Google's latest policies do anything to change this?

Within hours of the terrorist attack in Finsbury Park, Tommy Robinson was trending on Twitter. The former leader of the English Defence League accused the Finsbury Park mosque of “creating terrorists” in a series of tweets on his personal account.

More than 17,400 people have now tweeted about the 34-year-old, with many theorising he could have radicalised the attacker who allegedly shouted “I’m going to kill all Muslims” at the scene. At present, there is no evidence that the man arrested by police on suspicion of attempted murder is a fan of Robinson.

“People are saying I’m inciting hate,” said Robinson in a video uploaded to Twitter and YouTube after the attack. “I just tell the facts and the truth and I’m not going to apologise for that…

“If giving you quotes from the Quran that incite murder and war against us is inciting hate, I’m guilty. If telling you all the problematic problems that come from the teachings and scriptures of Islam, I’m guilty. But these are just facts.”

After describing the country as being at “war”, he goes on to say: “Please one person, just one, give me one example of me inciting hate.”

When we talk about radicalisation and terrorism, we are finally to understand that this extends beyond the work of Isis.

Just over a year ago, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist. This morning, Harry Potter author JK Rowling used Twitter to accuse columnist Katie Hopkins of contributing to radicalisation. The New Statesman’s own Media Mole notes how right-wing tabloids incite hate.

In particular, it is now evident how the far right radicalises online. In December 2016, a man fired three shots in a Washington DC pizza parlour that the alt-right (on 4Chan and YouTube) had accused of being at the centre of a paedophile ring.

The internet arguably allowed Anders Breivik, the Norwegian far right white supremacist who killed 77 people in 2011, to cultivate his extreme views. Alexandre Bissonnette, the white nationalist who murdered six men at a Québec City mosque in January, was described by many as an “internet troll”.

Earlier this year, a report by the Commons home affairs committee accused social media giants of not doing enough to tackle terrorism online. In response to this – and following a series of high-profile brands pulling their advertising from YouTube after it was featured on or by terrorism-related videos – Google, which owns the video-sharing site, has now announced four steps it is taking to fight online terror. But do these reflect the reality that there are many forms of extremism?

Google’s new guidelines speak of “terrorism” and “extremism” in broad terms. This means that videos glorifying or inciting terrorism will be treated the same whether they are from the far right, far left, or pro-Isis organisations.

Google’s four steps for tackling such videos include: using machine learning to identify videos glorifying violence, using a team of human flaggers to identify problematic videos, and using a "redirect method" to send potential Isis recruits towards anti-terror videos. Each of these steps is concerned with content that either breaks the law or violates YouTube’s policies.

The fourth step (or rather the third, as it is ordered in Google’s blogpost) is focused on non-illegal, non-policy violating content. For example, this could include videos that don’t directly incite terrorism, but arguably incite hate, such as those denying the Holocaust.

According to Kent Walker, Google’s general counsel, these could also be “videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content”. Rather than being removed like the other offending videos, these will be hidden behind a warning, not have adverts on them (therefore preventing their creators from making money), and will not be eligible for comments. Essentially, as Walker writes, “that means these videos will have less engagement and be harder to find”.

It remains to be seen whether – or how – this will apply to the content of Tommy Robinson. YouTube’s steps will be taken on a video-by-video basis, meaning no far right commentator will be banned outright. Instead, YouTube simply won’t promote any offending videos, meaning they will not appear in their subscribers’ recommended feeds and will be difficult to find on the site.

In this way, Google has remained committed to free speech while doing more to tackle extremism on YouTube. Those like Robinson who claim to just “tell the facts” could arguably now be held to account for their actions. Many on the far right are careful to not explicitly advocate violence. Nevertheless, the loaded language used in their videos could arguably incite hate.

Paul Joseph Watson, a right-wing conspiracy theorist YouTuber with nearly one million subscribers, has never advocated terrorism, but has videos entitled “Islam is NOT a Religion of Peace” and “Chuck Johnson: Muslim Migrants Will Cause Collapse of Europe”.

In the past I have argued that allowing Google and YouTube to censor us in the name of “extremism” and “terrorism” is a troubling trend, but with these new promises, the company has walked the delicate line between the law and free speech. By allowing hateful, but not illegal, content to be hosted on its site and yet restricted from a wider audience, YouTube is taking a stand against extremists of all kinds.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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