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

Getty/Glu Games/New Statesman
Show Hide image

The second coming of Gordon Ramsay

A star is reborn. 

It would be a lie to say that Gordon Ramsay ever disappeared. The celebrity chef made his television debut in 1997 and went on to star in shows in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. There hasn’t been a lull in Ramsay’s career, which has arguably gone from strength to strength. In 2000, he was cooking for Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair – in 2008, he ate the raw heart of a dead puffin.

Left: Gordon Ramsay shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. Right: Gordon Ramsay hugging a puffin (different from the one he ate).

Yet we are, undeniably, in the middle of a Ramsay renaissance. How? How could a man that conquered the last twenty years of cookery-based television have an upsurge in popularity? There are only so many television channels – so many amateur donkey chefs. Wrong. The internet has enabled a Ramsay resurgence, the second act of a play overflowing with blood, sweat, and French onion soup.

Wow.

We all, of course, know about Gordon’s Twitter account. Although started in 2010, the social media profile hit the headlines in February this year when Ramsay began rating food cooked by the world’s amateur-amateur chefs. But other elements of Ramsay’s internet celebrity are more miraculous and mysterious.

His official YouTube channel uploads, on average, three videos a week. Decades old clips from Kitchen Nightmares accumulate over three million views in as many days. A 15,000 follower-strong Facebook fan page for the show – which premiered in 2007 and ended in 2014 – was set up on 19 June 2017.

Wow, wow, wow, wow. Wow.       

A Google Trends graph showing an April 2017 surge in Ramsay's popularity, after a decline in 2014.                                      

What makes a meme dank? Academics don’t know. What is apparent is that a meme parodying Gordon Ramsay’s fury over missing lamb sauce (first aired on Hell’s Kitchen in 2006) had a dramatic upsurge in popularity in December 2016. This is far from Gordon’s only meme. Image macros featuring the star are captioned with fictitious tirades from the chef, for example: “This fish is so raw… it’s still trying to find Nemo”. A parody clip from The Late Late Show with James Cordon in which Ramsay calls a woman an “idiot sandwich” has been watched nearly five million times on YouTube.

And it is on YouTube where Ramsay memes most thrive. The commenters happily parrot the chef’s most memable moments, from “IT’S RAW” to the more forlorn “fuck me” after the news something is frozen. “HELLO MY NAME IS NINOOOOO!” is an astonishingly popular comment, copied from a clip in which a Kitchen Nightmares participant mocks his brother. If you have not seen it – you should.

But what does all this mean for Ramsay’s career? His YouTube channel and Facebook page are clearly meticulously managed by his team – who respond to popular memes by clipping and cutting new videos of classic Ramsay shows. Although this undoubtedly earns a fortune in ad revenue, Ramsay’s brand has capitalised on his internet fame in more concrete ways. The chef recently voiced Gordon Ramsay Dash, a mobile game by Glu Games Inc in which you can cook with the star and he will berate or praise you for your efforts. Ten bars of gold – which are required to get upgrades and advance in the game – cost 99p.

Can other celebrity chefs learn from Ramsay? A generation will never forgive that twisted, golden piece of meat, Jamie Oliver, for robbing them of their lunch time Turkey Twizzlers. But beyond this, the internet’s love is impossible to game. Any celebrity who tried to generate an online following similar to Ramsay’s would instantly fail. Ramsay’s second coming is so prolific and powerful because it is completely organic. In many ways, the chef is not resposible for it. 

In truth, the Ramsay renaissance only worked because it was - though the chef himself would not want to admit it - completely raw.

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