Radical internet freedom campaigner Aaron Swartz recently took his own life as he faced the prospect of 35 years in prison. Mya Pope-Weidemann argues that those who share his vision must continue his fight

Aaron Swartz

‘Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations…

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies…

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past.’
Aaron Swartz Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, 2008

This was the conviction that drove the internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, already pursued by the FBI, to continue his relentless struggle against the privatisation of information and culture online. In 2011 he was arrested for allegedly downloading 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR with the intent to share them with the public. When even JSTOR and the State of Massachusetts were unwilling to prosecute him to the full extent of the law, the case was hijacked by the US Attorney, Carmen Oritz.

Aaron found himself facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine; and every day of his defence against the federal grand jury would have cost as much. To settle the case, Aaron was asked to plead guilty to what we might consider more a public service than a crime, and live the rest of his life as a felon. He refused, and two days later, quietly took his own life. And as per his instructions, all his on-going work was made public online.

Aaron’s struggle

Aaron had a brilliant mind. By age 14 he had contributed to the revolutionising of RSS feeds which help facilitate the distribution of multi-media information online and within a year, was working with World Wide Web founder and fellow-activist Tim Berners-Lee.

In 2009, the child prodigy turned intellectual Robin Hood had his first run-in with the FBI. By then he had already made a name for himself in the movement as a relentless campaigner for internet freedom. He played a key role in launching the Creative Commons project, an online service which provides free, selective copyrights. This allowed scientists, musicians, writers and artists to allow selected aspects of their work to be re-used and developed by people all across the world based on the belief that collaboration, not competition, was the vehicle of human progress.

In 2009 Aaron went after the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), which charges per-view for records produced with public money for the public good. He proceeded to help PACER more efficiently deliver that ‘public access’ by using the temporary permissions granted to public libraries to download 18 million pages before he was stopped, and proceeded to post them on public.resource.org. By now they had a file on him and had staked out his mother’s house.

In 2010, despite his on-going struggle with depression, Aaron co-founded Demand Progress, one of the leading organisations building mass opposition to US’ Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). SOPA, and its European counterpart the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) are part of an international effort by powerful corporations and governments to crack down on file-sharing online. But their ramifications are far deeper. Intellectual property rights have the added benefit of legitimising online surveillance and undermining free speech but they’re also big money for agribusiness. The growing application of intellectual property rights to genetically modified seeds, pushed by corporations and used by many thousands of peasant farmers in the global South, indebts them to massive corporations like Monsanto. The unsavoury truth is that Aaron’s is not the first suicide to be associated with this battle over the privatisation, not only of things, but of ideas. In India, tens of thousands of farmers found it to be their only escape from debt in what’s come to be known as ‘the GM genocide’. Despite last year’s defeat of SOPA and ACTA, thanks to mass protest and opposition on both sides of the Atlantic, that struggle is on-going.

By the time Aaron, a fellow at Harvard but using MIT servers, downloaded the JSTOR files, he’d already caused a lot of trouble. For Demand Progress, the federal case brought against him was like ‘trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.’ It was ultimately a victimless ‘crime’. But Aaron wasn’t just another student; he was a dissident. Beyond the realm of internet activism he read Chomsky, wrote prolifically and campaigned for affordable education and against islamophobia and imperialism.

Whose internet? Our internet

“The internet really is out of control. But if we forget that, if we let Hollywood re-write the story so it was just big company Google that stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us we didn’t actually make a difference, if we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work… well then next time, they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.”
Aaron Swartz, May 2011

After SOPA was defeated, Aaron warned the public to remain vigilant. The warning was prophetic. When legislation failed at the regional level, the entertainment and agribusiness industries moved their lobby up a notch, to the United Nations. Its International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is now pushing for unprecedented surveillance and control over online data flows.

However, the literal and cultural impoverishment of communities, aggravated by this draconian regime of intellectual property rights, cannot be fought just by resisting the attempts of exploitative and undemocratic institutions to control the internet. It is also a battle over the nature of the internet itself.

There has been a tendency on some sections of the autonomist left, particularly since the so-called ‘Facebook revolutions’ of the Arab Uprisings, to fetishise the internet as an indubitable tool for emancipation. This is a dangerous mistake. On one hand, the communication revolution – and it is revolutionary – means ‘the whole world is watching.’ An Egyptian woman is beaten by a gang of police and we see it. Occupy protesters are bound and pepper-sprayed en masse and we see it. A bystander is beaten to death at a G20 protest and we see it. There is power in that, it helps protect us when we organise and demonstrate. And it opens eyes. That is the internet we need to protect.

On the other hand, however, the whole world is watching. And some of that watching is being done by governments, intelligence agencies and corporations with eyes quite different from your average YouTube user. Firstly, they never sleep and they watch on an industrial scale. Second, they’re looking for control, not knowledge. The renewal of the US Patriot Act brings us one step closer to the annihilation of online anonymity. Last year the secret correspondence published by Wikileaks revealed the Trapwire Project to the world: an Orwellian surveillance system installed in the US, run by Stratfor with help from ex-CIA and Pentagon personnel and connected to the Tartan programme, designed to track alleged anarchists in the Occupy movement.

Public privacy is also under siege by commercial interests. They track what you buy, what you watch, what you read and who you talk to, all the better to exploit you.

The internet has revolutionised the power of advertising, now tailored specifically to convince you to part with your cash. If you want a good scare, download Ghostery, a free, open-source add on for internet browsers which ‘tracks the trackers’ that follow you online (there are many) – and helpfully allows you to block them. Don’t underestimate the political and economic power of these invisible little programmes. Over fifty per cent of internet traffic is now generated by non-human sources. Algorithms and computer programmes now account for seventy per cent of Wall Street trading.

The internet is a public resource and a product of collective endeavour. The remarkable innovations of online video and file sharing and the ingenuity of projects like Creative Commons demonstrate its enormous potential as a progressive and enlightening force in society. Much like healthcare and education, however, it’s being billed increasingly as a commercial product. This shift is reflected in the very structure of the internet, as the strategy of personalisation pioneered by advertisers is adopted by the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Google. These websites now measure relevance in terms of what you, based on your internet history, location and demographic, will be most likely to click on. Google ‘Egypt’ and you’ll probably pull up links on Tahrir Square and the Muslim Brotherhood – but not everyone does. And most people don’t even realise they’re looking at different things, living in a ‘filter bubble’. This quiet evolution of the internet search has been conducted without public consultation, arguably because it amounts to the provision of a more efficient search engine. ‘A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to you right now than people dying in Africa,’ was Mark Zuckerberg’s defence of filtering Facebook feeds.

They’re giving us what we want, aren’t they? T.S. Eliot once said “those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating the public taste and end by debauching it.” Just because we don’t Google the LIBOR or drone casualties in Pakistan doesn’t mean we don’t need to know about them. With the internet becoming the primary channel through which new media now reaches people, the consequences of this are not to be underestimated. Information is always filtered; the world’s a complex place and our brains can’t digest the whole thing at once. But control over the filtering process enables you to set the agenda. That is why transparency is a cornerstone of real democracy. To protect it we must not only fight against acts like SOPA and ACTA which attempt to centralise control over it – we must also recognise it for what it is: a collaborative project in which we all have a stake, and ought to have a say.

Aaron’s dangerous precedent

According to the statement released by Aaron’s family, his death was a product of ‘a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.’ They also condemned MIT for refusing ‘to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.’ After all, when educational institutions become more concerned with restricting knowledge to the affluent elite, what’s the point? Unfortunately, MIT’s attitude is reflective of a growing, unspoken assumption in the West that begrudging obedience and theoretical rights are enough to constitute democracy. This sentiment has been echoed by all manner of policy-makers, including in the media and education, since Walter Lipmann won the undying affection of the neoliberals with his argument that for ‘democracy’ to survive, the ‘bewildered herd’ must be managed by a ‘specialised class’.

In light of the bizarrely disproportionate punishments threatened, and the many legal and moral weaknesses of the case against him, we must conclude that Aaron was persecuted not because of what he did, but because of who he was. Much like Bradley Manning, Aaron set a dangerous precedent. The US enjoys military and economic supremacy; but computer technology, at least for now, creates a space where ingenuity of some unarmed activists and intellectuals is enough to make a breakthrough. Aaron used that ability to re-claim public knowledge and uphold the belief that for democracy to be real, people must be allowed to participate intelligently. And that, undoubtedly, is a dangerous idea.

In the hours following Aaron’s suicide, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, father of the 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.’

He will be remembered as a tireless campaigner for social justice, who defended the internet as a potential tool for communication and creative collaboration. To realise that internet, one which connects rather than divides people, which widens the world instead of narrowing it, Aaron understood it must be protected from state-set agendas and the ravages of the commercial market, and pushed beyond the confines of rich, industrial societies. It is up to those who share that vision to continue his work.

Mya Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.