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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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