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

@Simon_Cullen via Twitter
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All 27 things wrong with today’s Daily Mail front cover

Where do I even start?

Hello. Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that if you have seen today’s Daily Mail cover, you no doubt immediately turned to the person nearest to you to ask: “Have you seen today’s Daily Mail cover? It is wrong.”

But just how wrong is the wrong Mail cover? Let me count the ways.

  1. Why does it say “web” and not “the web”?
  2. Perhaps they were looking on a spider’s web and to be honest that makes more sense because
  3. How does it take TWO MINUTES to use a search engine to find out that cars can kill people?
  4. Are the Mail team like your Year 8 Geography teacher, stuck in an infinite loop of typing G o o g l e . c o m into the Google search bar, the search bar that they could’ve just used to search for the thing they want?
  5. And then when they finally typed G o o g l e . c o m, did they laboriously fill in their search term and drag the cursor to click “Search” instead of just pressing Enter?
  6. The Daily Mail just won Newspaper of the Year at the Press Awards
  7. Are the Daily Mail – Newspaper of the Year – saying that Google should be banned?
  8. If so, do they think we should ban libraries, primary education, and the written word?
  9. Sadly, we know the answer to this
  10. Google – the greatest source of information in the history of human civilisation – is not a friend to terrorists; it is a friend to teachers, doctors, students, journalists, and teenage girls who aren’t quite sure how to put a tampon in for the first time
  11. Upon first look, this cover seemed so obviously, very clearly fake
  12. Yet it’s not fake
  13. It’s real
  14. More than Google, the Mail are aiding terrorists by pointing out how to find “manuals” online
  15. While subsets of Google (most notably AdSense) can be legitimately criticised for profiting from terrorism, the Mail is specifically going at Google dot com
  16. Again, do they want to ban Google dot com?
  17. Do they want to ban cars?
  18. Do they want to ban search results about cars?
  19. Because if so, where will that one guy from primary school get his latest profile picture from?
  20. Are they suggesting we use Bing?
  21. Why are they, once again, focusing on the perpetrator instead of the victims?
  22. The Mail is 65p
  23. It is hard to believe that there is a single person alive, Mail reader or not, that can agree with this headline
  24. Three people wrote this article
  25. Three people took two minutes to find out cars can drive into people
  26. Trees had to die for this to be printed
  27. It is the front cover of the Mail

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