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

PewDiePie
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"Death to all Jews": Why Disney dropped YouTube's biggest star PewDiePie

The Minecraft vlogger turned internet celebrity's taste for shock comedy was too much for the family-focused corporation. 

Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most-subscribed star after he paid two Sri Lankan men five dollars to hold up a sign that read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

Feel free to read that sentence again, it’s not going anywhere.

A still from PewDiePie's video, via YouTube

PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers on YouTube, where his videos about gaming earned him over $15m last year. The 27-year-old, whose content is popular with children, came under fire this month after the Wall Street Journal investigated anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In one video, a man dressed as Jesus says “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong”, while in another Kjellberg used freelance marketplace Fiverr to pay two men to hold up the offensive sign. The videos have since been deleted.

Jumpcut.

The Walt Disney Company became affiliated with PewDiePie after they bought Maker Studios, a network of YouTube stars, for nearly $1bn in 2014. Following the WSJ’s investigation, Maker dropped the star, stating: “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”

When you sack a YouTube Star, makes no difference who they are.

Via Wall Street Journal

But why should the story stop there? Neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer are now defending PewDiePie, while the notoriously politically-incorrect 4Chan forum /pol/ have called him “our guy”.  

In his defence, Kjellberg wrote a blog post denying an affiliation with anti-Semitic groups and explained his actions, writing: “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.” In a video last December the star also said: "It's extremely annoying how I can't make jokes on my channel without anyone quoting it as actual facts, like something I actually said", before dressing as a soldier and listening to one of Hitler's speeches while smiling. 

Pause.

(If all of this sounds familiar, recall when disgraced YouTuber Sam Pepper claimed a video in which he groped unsuspecting females was a “social experiment”).

Play.

And yet the story still isn’t over. Disney have learned a hard lesson about assuming that YouTubers are the squeaky clean fairy-tale princes and princesses they often appear to be. Shay Butler, one of the original founders of Maker Studios, yesterday quit the internet after it was alleged he sent sexual messages to a cam girl via Twitter.

Butler is one of the original "family vloggers", and has spent nine years uploading daily videos of his five children to YouTube. A practicing Mormon, Butler has become emblematic of family values on the site. “My heart is sick,” he wrote on Twitter, neither confirming nor denying the allegations of his infidelity, “I have struggled with alcoholism for years… My purpose is to rehab.” 

The result is a very dark day for YouTube, which has now dropped Kjellberg from its premier advertising network, Google Preferred, and cancelled the second series of the star's reality show, Scare PewDiePie

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