"Aaron dead. World Wanderer, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down .Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep", tweeted Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of World Wide Web on the death of Aaron Swartz. The question of how Aaron Swartz shouldbe remembered in the annals of history remains equally before the intelligentsia- the keepers of information and the people he stood for- and "the commons"; the knows and know-nots. Eulogists haven’t failed to mention the credentials of this computer prodigy.
At the age of 14, Aaron Swartz co-created RSS (Rich Site Summary) 1.0 which helps a web reader to get updates from any website which confirms to its specifications. He co-designed Creative Commonslicences, which made easy sharing and usage of knowledge without law infringements. He dropped out from Stanford University before co-founding Reddit, a social and entrainment news website where users provided the content. Later Reddit was sold to Wired Magazine Company for more than $ 10 million. In 2007, he led the development of OpenLibrary.org, an ambitious project to collect information about every book ever published, which presently has1 million disabled friendly books in the public domain. If the story ends here, Aaron would be remembered like Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Steve Jobs of Apple but with a tint of ideology about an “Open Society”.
Exploring this tint of ideology and his pursuit of a world where knowledge is accessible to everyone, one can understand that it cost him a lot. On the day when US court filings data base, PACER opened up its paid access for free but limited to 17 libraries, Aaron ran a script which downloaded 19.8 million pages of text worth 3 million dollars for free public distribution. Later he founded Demand Progress and played a huge role in building up massive campaigns against the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the US Senate and its US House of Representatives equivalent, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which was allegedly lobbied by Hollywood and Music Industry for 94 million dollars. Following the world-wide public protest, marking American Censorship Day on 16 November 2011 and internet blackouts by Wikipedia, Reddit etc., a large number of US politicians withdrew their support for the Acts. Meanwhile, he was arrested from MIT Campus for downloading over 4.8 million articles from JSTOR which he collected for free public distribution. He had to face an superseding indictment of 13 felony counts(Felony counts increased from four to thirteen) through which he could have faced upto 35 years in prison and fine of one million dollars. Later, though JSTOR dropped the case, the trail continued with US attorney Ortiz’s assertion “stealing is stealing” and finally on 11 January 2013 he was found dead after hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment. Again, he should not be confused with Robin Hood, even though Aaron’s activism not only cost him talent but his life too.
Delineating the personality of Aaronto find out the reasons of his genius, activism or his precarious death, largely outlays a parley of following stages: a) an internet prodigy and activist, b) kernel-space technology and user space politics, c) memory and myth; and d) knowledge and power. But this evolution of descriptions fails to go beyond stage b and gets submersed in the process of creating myth out of memories of Aaron. It’s essential to go beyond stage c but definitely not to “pathologize” the story as Lawrence Lessig worried.
"Freedom of speech has been under threat in every age. The digital age is in fact the biggest opportunity for freedom since Gutenberg" - Timothy Garton Ash, Oxford Historian and leader in fr5ee speech debate.
A bigger opportunity always comes along with a bigger threat. Here, a threat which has been resounded by the intellects of the hour; like Karl Marx who was worried about the increments of technology by bourgeois production relations, leading to alienation and later marginalization of the large by the accumulation of wealth by few or like Michael Foucault who believed in the knowledge –power duality where power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding and ‘truth’. If I may lend Eric Hobsbawm’s terminologies, what else did humanity witness in its course from the age of revolution to the age of capital, empires and extremes but the rise of the enlightened against the vicissitudes of power on their lives?
We live in the age of information with its surplus yearning to connect the far and near; an age of knows and know-nots. But as Aaron Swartz notes in his opening lines of Guerilla Open Access Manifesto: "Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves". The Leviathan- Nation States did realize this erudition of Aaron before hand, which reflected in their ironical stands during the debates that happened in recently concluded World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) of UN International Telecommunication Union.
Superficially it appeared as a debate between neo-liberal States and pro-State control notions of China and Russia, but both positions were ‘poisoned ice cream candied with nuts and dried fruits’- with varying levels of obscurity. When the latter openly contested and confessed it’s going to decide what its people would think, the former presumably stood for freedom of expression but was ensuring the monopoly of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers), a private non-profit entity which was previously overseen by US. The dichotomy in the stands could be understood when the same ‘free nations’ appeal for laws like SOPA and hunts down people like Aaron Swartz under hollow acts like Computer and Fraud Abuse Act inside their countries.
The questions around obscurity and access had once led to the criticism of the writings from Plato through Hegel to Derrida. Today these questions permeates the circles of intelligentsia , especially when mass movements necessarily doesn’t lie under the wish and will of intellects , it had attained universality in the backdrop of events like social media fuelled - Arab Spring which shook decades of dictatorship, controversies around vaulted Internet services in China ,the attempts to arrest the Wikileaks Founder, Julain Assange at Ecuadorean Embassy or more evidently in the protests that happened in India after the gang rape of a woman in Delhi on 16th December 2012.
Further, the debates of freedom to express (here to connect) can be around another dimension , when the law fails to provide adequate space for technology and its creators .It is becoming more evident when it comes to ‘developing nations’ like India which is estimated to have a third of World’s poor and with an one-fourth population illiterate. The Narmada Bachao Andolan or protest against Kudankulam Nuclear Power Project can also be considered as repercussions when the space provided for technology was not bound by ethics. The public clamor against arresting two students in Mumbai for posting and "liking” in facebook on the death of Bal Thackeray was an example of the invasion of social controls into the newly built cyber space for a deviance check; no less was the move of a publisher’s consortium of Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor & Francis against a photocopy shop in the campus of Delhi School of Economics on charges of copyright infringement, but for deterrence. All theses ruptures exist as coordinates in an ill-built space that developing nations are creating as they embrace more technology and information. They are derivatives of a mismatch between science, and law with its ethics binding science. A discrepancy in these Urim and the Thummim of human philosophical understandingwould cause serious casualties and Aaron was the most recent victim to it.
May be it’s the circulatory of power we should question not the law it makes .More precisely not just the Nation-States alone. How else the Nation-States both in high and low of developmental indices have rules like 18 U.S.C 1030(a)(4) of US or 66 A of India IT Act which hold the potency to be draconian ?Then we will have to see who gives us information ,point fingers to them and ask Roman Satirist Juvenal’s classic question: Sedquiscustodietipsoscustodes?(But who will guard the guard themselves?). The power to control binaries and bits by AND, NOT, OR Gates and other complex IC chips created a world of information surge and unprecedented technological inventions for humanity. But their metaphorical counterparts like e-journals created by free public contribution but with heavy access payments, search engines giving populist choices, advertisement propelled corporate media or the state which censors media are all equally perpetuating marginalization of knowledge and therein of people.
To liberate data from the hands of conglomerates, is important not only because "bringing down the things from the top and making it more egalitarian is something that we should strive for" but" for everything there exists someone who cares a great deal about it" and "everyone has a way of expressing themselves" (Quotes from Aaron Swartz's interview with Steal this film). The #pdf tribute event which saw uploading of a large number of academic articles online for free public distribution and organizing hack nights are definitely expressing the public grief but the mourners should not forget the greater debate; the debate in which the gatekeepers of information keep the law of the land in their bay and provide fragmented spaces for people to access knowledge and develop their identity. If regulation of the regulators seems anarchical or idealist, it’s at least required to maintain the axioms of law incorrect posture, like the ones of deterrence and proportionality, for if else the sources of knowledge that the gatekeepers protect would extinguish- which is existential both for the people at the centre and margins. This essentially has to be addressed considering facts like the largest democracy in the world is turning out to become the largest IT power in the world too. To an extreme, an age where a hacker community could threaten to topple a democracy politically is not so far .More importantly, the law framework and state policies or other power derivatives should reform so as they don’t create outcast in cyber space as done through Caste segregation by Brahamaincal systems or the Indian State pursuit of Naxalites.
During the Freedom to Connect conference 2012 mentioning about the success of anti-SOPA-PIPA movement, Aaron noted "We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it...."
Let’s keep spaces for innovation in our mind, society and law, else like Aaron Swartz, the prodigies of future will have to write notes in their blog on what if they get hit by truck and end it with a line “I'm not dead yet! .It’s not just this tint of irony that completes the life of this young man, rather it's the ideas that he left for free and connected world beyond obscurities of two infinite ends - a world that's not flat.