The Internet War – Which Side Are You On?

The recent events surrounding Aaron Swartz, Anonymous, MIT, and the U.S. government has caused a complete uproar in all directions over the World Wide Web. The last three weeks have seen the best and worst responses to the concept of a free and open Web. Which side of the argument do you find yourself on? As technology grows and adapts, we find ourselves arguing the moral debate that all knowledge brings us to: how much knowledge is too much? Do we wish to simply be blinded by mediocrity, excel past the point of stability, or find a middle ground?

Aaron Swartz began his internet career at 14, co-authoring the early version of RSS. He then went on to start Infogami, Reddit, and SOPA. Swartz was also involved with Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Markdown, and W3C; he was heavily involved with civic awareness and sociology in general. In 2010, he started research at Harvard University and founded the online group, Demand Progress. There is so much that he contributed, but the life of an activist is a dangerous one at best.

On January 11, 2013, at the age of 26, Swartz took his own life by hanging himself. It was known that he had struggled with depression (as indicated in his blog entries and by family members), and it seems as though the pressure on him revolving around his criminal charges was too much for him in the end.

For those who aren’t aware of the case against Swartz, let’s take a quick overview of the charges. On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested for organizing a mass downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR. The website had a user fee to allow access to its articles. Swartz was opposed to JSTOR’s policy as they compensated publishers instead of authors based on the user fees. To Swartz, this was JSTOR limiting public access to academic works that were being publicly funded – which should, by logic, belong to the public.

The controversy surrounding the charges against Swartz was in regards to what JSTOR was charging him for. Put most bluntly by Chris Hayes (MSNBC), “at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of—and I’m not exaggerating here—downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR.” This is what has been creating such a stir – that the prosecutions were based on information that was technically free for download anyway.

Since this tragic ending to a life full of potential, the response from the world has been overwhelming to say the very least.

From friends, family, and people involved with legislation – the internet and general media has seen waves of responses over this entire incident. Naturally, the Swartz family is in mourning and is angry at their son’s death, calling the practices of the court into question. Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father and intellectual property consultant to MIT stated at his son’s funeral: “[Aaron] was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”  This is a powerful statement that will ring in the ears of activists all over the world for some time to come. It has also sparked a lot of debate over what needs to change when persecuting individuals based on displays of activism over the internet, and who needs to make these changes happen.

There has been a lot of backlash against U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, going as far as people petitioning the White House to have her outright fired. There were over 50,000 signatures on the petition, and a similar plea has been made against Prosecutor Stephen Heymann. On January 15, 2013, four days after his death, all charges against Swartz were dropped. Though it was a win for Swartz’s memory, many are still outraged that it took his death for something like this to be so readily reversed by the government.

But with any great leader, there comes the voices of those they have left behind. Twitter has been the main point of discussion, with supporters of Swartz responding to his death by creating an effort called #PDFtribute. Scholars from all disciplines are posting their work for all to access, to pay tribute to the young activist’s untimely passing. This has been one of the most positive movements created over this entire event – and one that I think more people need to focus on. A free and open Web begins with those leaders and figureheads that have the knowledge to share; the inspiration coming from these scholars is one that – if done right – will echo through the ages.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an online political movement without the hacktivist group Anonymous throwing their hat into the ring. In response to Swartz’s death, Anonymous has made several large attacks against the government and the people involved with the Aaron Swartz case. The most recent offense was the U.S. Sentencing Commission website – twice – replacing the content on the website with a video stating that the government had gone too far in their treatment of Swartz, and that they have encrypted government files they will be releasing to the public via a decryption code, should the government not comply and begin amending the cybercrime laws.

Even without the gentle hand of Anonymous’ army, parts of the government and the institutions wrapped up in this ordeal have started to make strides towards amending the very rules and laws that caused this entire scenario to happen as it did. MIT professor, Hal Abelson, has been appointed to investigate MIT’s role in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, and the decisions made by MIT employees to contact the police in the first place. For now, MIT will be maintaining an open computer network policy, and hopes to avoid this type of situation in the future.

Several members of the U.S. House of Representatives have even begun questioning the way this case was handled, most notably Zoe Lofgren, who has introduced a bill called “Aaron’s Law”.  This law, if implemented, would remove terms of service violations as condemnable from the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1986), as well as the Wire Fraud Statute. This would mean that what happened to Swartz specifically could never happen to other internet users again under United States law. The goal is to re-think the way we see internet cases and try to re-focus them to reflect the same principles we already have in place in society today regarding theft, contracts, or property.

This entire issue reminds me of the “Free Kevin” initiative back in 1995, when Kevin Mitnick was held in prison without conviction for years. He had been incarcerated without trial longer than most would deem appropriate, and Steve Gold (an employee at Secure Computing) was even quoted to say, “For all that he’s done, there are despots and murderers out there who have suffered less than Kevin”. I believe the steps that were taken to speak out against the injustices against Kevin were done with conviction, passion, and honesty.

People have been so afraid of those who know more about technology and how it works than them, that they treat those people as the most devious and criminally deranged citizens out there. It is that fear that has led to this popular concept that openly sharing knowledge over the internet is bad form, which is exactly what it was created for! The internet started as a means of communication between a group of nerds wanting to share information openly with each other. Why does everybody seem to forget this? Commercialization and standardization of our information is what has killed this dream, and this is exactly why people like Anonymous go to such extremes to get their point across.

I have been a long-standing supporter of Net neutrality and an advocate of a free and open Web. I do not hide this fact, but I also understand that there is a difference between speaking out and acting out. When you cross that line, people are bound to get hurt. If history has taught us anything, it is that people are willing to live and die for their ideals, and the best that they can hope for is that it starts a fire that will consume the competition. Aaron Swartz may have just been that fire, but only time will tell.

Just look at the progress we’ve made. Universities like Harvard, Yale, and MIT have begun offering free online courses and further education, open to the public. Users from all over the globe share their experiences and knowledge on websites like Wikipedia and Reddit. The world is a better place for all when people like Swartz are free to question the very fundamentals we cling to, but when it goes too far, the cost of this freedom feels too high. The more we as the people opt to share and enlighten our fellow man through means available to us – the more common and accepted a free and open Web will become. I may be naive in thinking the world still has so much to offer and can focus its efforts in a positive way, but I do. Stop hurting one another and start funneling our efforts into educating the masses with content that can be readily available to all.

About This Post

February 9, 2013 - 7:57 am

Opinion, Technology

  • Jeff Numpty

    This article is full of inaccuracies. For just one of many examples, the federal case against Swartz was dismissed because of his death, not because of the silly petitions against Ortiz and Heymann–corpses aren’t prosecuted.

  • Jeff Numpty

    This article is full of inaccuracies. For just one of many examples, the federal case against Swartz was dismissed because of his death, not because of the silly petitions against Ortiz and Heymann–corpses aren’t prosecuted.