Information Doesn’t Want to be Free, But Aaron Swartz is Already Dead

Okay, with ‘Information Doesn’t Want to be Free,’ Cory Doctorow has a bestseller in his bag to flaunt. He has discussed the long and short of online content piracy and has managed to woo a lot of readers and anti-piracy patrons. Hugely.

But the bottomline is that Aaron Swartz is no more. He’s gone. That too, for the most wrong reasons.

On January 11, 2013, Aaron Hillel Swartz, a 26 year old tech wunderkind, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. An action of apparent suicide by hanging – the medical reports had spoken. The obvious reason was a recent prosecution which had left him totally shattered.

Some called it ‘injustice,’ others shed silent tears and led silent protests, still others called it the death of a gem, criticizing the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T) and also the government for causing the untimely trauma.

And then, there was this fourth kind, writing big books on the grave issue of content piracy, discussing the shortcomings of the traditional piracy-protection ways, comparing and contrasting the ‘need of’ and the ‘no-need of’ information to be available for free on the World Wide Web. A huge irony, it is, how Tim Berners-Lee, the maker, the very father of www, had arrived for an eulogy on Swartz’s funeral.

But, what Swartz wanted was only a wider, more open Internet.
He was a superb programmer, a powerful writer, a political organizer and hard core, popular Internet hacktivist. Of course, his hacking endeavours were for the betterment of Internet users and had brought to light some serious nose twitching of anti-piracy people.

He was arrested for allegedly breaching M.I.T’s computer networks to gain access to JSTOR, the accessible-on-subscription digital library, and for threatening to make the content public. Irony again, how Swartz never leaked JSTOR’s content and how, JSTOR, most annoyingly, has decided to make its content ‘free for individual use’ now. With no serious harm done and with the irreplaceable loss of a great life, was the big ‘prosecution’ fuss really worth it? No, certainly.

The darker side of M.I.T:
Why blame Aaron Swartz alone? Was the M.I.T network not a fault too? That the institute has an open network which is, most of the times, unrestricted and not administered, is known to all. And then, the authorities could have put on some restrictions regarding downloading. Like limiting bandwidth usage. But, they never did. And what’s an abusive practice over the Internet? The M.I.T authorities can never probably define.

How clean was JSTOR itself?
When Swartz had chosen to ‘hack’ JSTOR, (although his actions can never define what is called ‘authentic hacking’) the website allowed UNLIMITED downloading of content without caring to poke its users on detecting abusive actions. CAPTCHA was never included in the website, nor was any pop-up window to warn users of excessive downloading of its content. How stupid can a pay site be? Even though it claims to be non-profit? I might never blame Swartz. After all, he wasn’t after profit making. He was only after making the Internet more open, more free, more available to all.

Was it really a hack for the sake of it?
A hack would essentially mean that Swartz may have broken some CAPTCHA or tampered with some parameters. But, there wasn’t any such activity. What Swartz had done was just write a few very basic python script, detect the URLs of journals and have them on his device though a curl request. Is that even hacking? That’s as simple and as uncomplicated as downloading a free mp3. We all do it all the time. Are we hackers too then?

Why did Aaron Swartz not hide or try to cover his ‘crime’?
No, he didn’t clear his browser history. Neither did he encrypt his laptop. And when did changing a Mac address become a crime? Half the people using the Internet is doing it. All the time. And you still chose that innocent, could-have-become-a-big-shot-someday guy to rot to death? Just like that?

How Death got the better of Swartz:
He had millions of dollars to pay as fine and also to complete a sentence of 35 years of prison. And the charges were huge – computer fraud, wire fraud, and a hell lot of 13 federal crimes. Swartz was bankrupt. He didn’t have the money to carry on the trial. There was a lot of heartbreak and humiliation. And the unfortunate suicide after that.

Did he really deserve this? This man who was hugely behind the development of RSS, the web feed format? This man who had once volunteered as an editor for Wikipedia? This man who had co-created Markdown with John Gruber and created the framework and whose famous Infogami had merged with Reddit? Unbelievable, it is still.

But as much as we miss Aaron Swartz and his ideologies and as much as more Swartzs surface with new and petty controversies of unlocking ‘digital locks’ for the betterment of the society, there will be more Doctorows with more laws to talk about on how piracy is eating up copyright materials and how the entire system needs to be flushed and filled again.

‘Information Doesn’t Want to be Free’ is a great book, of course, given how author Neil Gaiman defends it by saying that Doctorow ‘deftly explains how an open Internet directly affects freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and why censorship doesn’t solve problems.’ But, part of this entire anti-piracy movement issue is that it is killing innocent and potential young brains like Aaron Swartz.

And this is bad. Very, very bad.

A post by Chayanika Deka. 12th of November, 2014.


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