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

YouTube screengrab
Show Hide image

Why I’m sick of fake theorists lamenting the “millennial problem”

Wise Thinkers lament smartphones, social media, and self-entitlement – ignoring how badly off this generation is thanks to its predecessors.

There is a certain sort of Wise Thinker who loves nothing more than to offer advice on the “problem” of “millennials”. Oh, Wise Thinker, where has this mysterious generation of lazy, entitled narcissists come from, and how am I supposed to deal with the ones who keep showing up in my office?

The answer, we’re told, is a massive failure in parenting that started in the 1980s – suddenly children were told they were special, that they could do anything they wanted to. Worse, they were shown they didn’t have to work for it – they were given participation medals just for showing up, and any time they did badly at school, they didn’t need to improve; their parents just complained to get them better marks!

No evidence that any of this is substantially true (or caused the claimed effects) need be offered: that can be left as an exercise to the reader’s own preconceptions.

(They’ve given out participation medals in the modern Olympics since it started in 1896, by the way. No one ever seems to mention that.)

A particularly refined example of this sort of thing has been doing the rounds of social media recently – a video clip in which motivational speaker and TED talkist Simon Sinek rehearses the familiar lines but then makes a rather bolder claim: millennials are losing the capacity for joy (and some of them are even killing themselves), and it’s all because of mobile phones.

Their use of mobile phones and social media is addictive, Sinek says, in exactly the same way as drugs and alcohol. He refers to the brain chemical dopamine, which immediately turns his every utterance into rigorous neuroscience – regardless of the quantity and quality of the evidence available to support it.

That every millennial is suffering from this terrible addiction is taken as read, as much as everyone who’s ever had a glass of wine is a raging alcoholic. Non-millennials, we all know, completely eschew the mobile phone and have never been seen on Facebook.

But this is only part of the broader millennial addiction to instant gratification – same-day delivery, movies-on-demand, even getting a date is now as simple as swiping right, as anyone who’s never actually tried online dating will surely agree!

It seems all millennials can have everything they want, whenever they want it, so they will never learn the hard lessons that the Wise Thinkers learned in the old times: how to be patient, how to have self-restraint, how to work hard for something.

This can surely be the first time in history in which the old have considered the young to be impatient and lazy.

Worst-case scenario? Sinek points to a rise in depression and suicide, and lets us draw arbitrary lines as we please. His best-case scenario: the millennial will never learn how to find joy, unless, apparently, their benevolent employer helps them with such innovative solutions as banning phones in meetings. Sure.

There is of course nothing wrong with some scepticism towards new technology and the effect it can have on the fragile human mind. If only we had heeded the scientist Conrad Gessner’s dire warning of a powerful new invention that would overwhelm, confuse and ultimately harm us with its unstoppable flood of information. That invention? The book. Gessner lived through the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century. History doesn’t record whether or not he wore stupid glasses.

But maybe Sinek is right – maybe only by abandoning the embrace of Siri will you know true love, millennials, some of you who are actually in your mid-thirties these days and have probably already started tutting at those younger than you who never learned “real” patience by sending texts on a Nokia 3310.

It must be a lot of fun, theorising about the possible origins of the “millennial problem”, and coming up with brilliant outside-the-box solutions to it. Weird, though, that all these Wise Thinkers never seem to talk about how many millennials started their careers in the midst (or the aftermath) of an uncertain job market caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Or how many of them had to start their careers with unpaid internships. Or, more fundamentally, that they’re the first generation for decades to earn lower wages than their predecessors.

Perhaps, for some strange reason, managers so supposedly desperate to understand millennial employees are not quite as interested in paying motivational speakers to tell them about things like that.