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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Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

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

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