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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Amazon's unlikely role in the Calais relief efforts

Campaigners are using Amazon's wishlist feature - more commonly used for weddings and birthdays - to rally supplies for the thousands camped at Calais. 

Today and yesterday, relief efforts have sprung up across the web and IRL following the publication of shocking photos of a drowned refugee child. People are collecting second hand clothes and food, telling David Cameron to offer refuge, and generally funneling support and supplies to the thousands in Calais and across Europe who have been forced from their homes by conflict in Syria and elsewhere. 

One campaign, however, stuck out in its use of technology to crowdsource supplies for the Calais camp. An Amazon wishlist page - more familiar as a way to circulate birthday lists or extravagant wedding registries - has been set up as part of the  #KentforCalais and #HelpCalais campaigns, and is collecting donations of clothes, food, toiletries, tents and sleeping supplies. 

Judging by the Twitter feed of writer and presenter Dawn O'Porter, one of the list's organisers, shoppers have come thick and fast. Earlier today, another user tweeted that there were only six items left on the list - because items had sold out, or the requested number had already been purchased - and O'Porter tweeted shortly after that another list had been made. Items ordered through the list will be delivered to organisers and than transported to Calais in a truck on 17 September. 

This, of course, is only one campaign among many, but the repurposing of an Amazon feature designed to satiate first world materialism as a method of crisis relief seems to symbolise the spirit of the efforts as a whole. Elsewhere, Change.org petitions, clothes drives organised via Facebook, and Twitter momentum (which, in this case, seems to stretch beyond the standard media echo chamber) have allowed internet users to pool their anger, funds and second-hand clothes in the space of 24 hours. It's worth noting that Amazon will profit from any purchases made through the wishlist, but that doesn't totally undermine its usefulness as a way to quickly and easily donate supplies. 

Last year, I spoke to US writer and urbanist Adam Greenfield, who was involved New York's Occupy Sandy movement (which offered relief after after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2011) and he emphasised the centrality of technology to the relief effort in New York:

Occupy Sandy relied completely on a Googledocs spreadsheet and an Amazon wishlist.  There was a social desire that catalysed uses of technology through it and around it. And if that technology didn't exist it might not have worked the way it did. 

So it's worth remembering, even as Amazon suffers what may be the worst PR disaster in its history and Silicon Valley's working culture is revealed to be even worse than we thought, that technology, in the right hands, can help us make the world a better place. 

You can buy items on the Amazon wishlist here or see our list of other ways to help here

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.