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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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

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