About two weeks ago Aaron Swartz killed himself. It is so odd to not know somebody and yet feel a palpable loss on discovering that person is gone. From my twitter feed I learned of the death of Aaron Swartz, a local boy (Highland Park) done good. Among other feats at fourteen Aaron invented RSS and was important enough to the founding of Reddit to get a big payout, and for the rest of what was to be a tragically short life used his abilities for the public good. We all know the way many tech geniuses go, they invent something and go off to make a start-up, create a hedge fund, give TED talks, go to Davos.
But this was not Aaron, he worked to make the internet a better place, in part by founding Demand Progress, which worked to protect privacy on the internet and fought against SOPA. Aaron had a history of depression but it is hard to imagine that the US government’s attempts to make him plead to felony charges or go to jail for at least 35 years didn’t play a role.
Aaron’s crime? Was it defrauding homeowners? Was it money-laundering drug dealers’ money? Was it advertising medication with full knowledge that said medications could have dangerous, fatal, side effects? No, it was downloading documents that were behind a paywall that Aaron, and many others felt was morally wrong since the documents in question were public documents (that are now available for free). And the producer in question—JSTOR dropped its compliant. But this did not matter to the US government. Even if Aaron was breaking the law—reasonable people can disagree—nobody thinks what the government was demanding was reasonable.
What has come out in various comments and blog posts since his death was the sheer humanity of this person, people really cared about him and are mourning his loss. People loved him and valued him not because of his obvious technical skills but because of his absolute commitment to helping people and using his skills for the common, public, good and reading these comments one has tofeel that the world is a lesser place today now that he is gone.
The internet and technology are universally hailed as good and vital, and are described as ways to increase conversation and debate, and as “fair”. It is really important to remember it does not have to be this way, that there are plenty of people who like to change this. At a minimum one can hope a real debate about the appropriate place of copyright law might get started with this tragedy. Also, realize we are living in an era when the government has broad powers to do whatever it wants. This has always been true but between post-9/11 fears and the rise of companies like Google the drive to know and control—whether it is in the name of “security” or just to make money, has never been larger.