Jan. 12th, 2013

logomancer: Xerxes from System Shock 2 (Default)

At long last, I have come back to writing in this thing, because something happened recently, and I needed to write about it someplace where space wasn't an issue.

So, the thing that has happened is that Aaron Swartz hanged himself this past Friday. I imagine none of you know who that is.

Aaron Swartz started by co-writing the RSS specification when he was 14. He later on helped found Reddit, wrote code for several open source programs, helped start the liberal copyright site Creative Commons, went on to found the political action group Demand Progress, and was one of the many people leading the charge against the Stop Online Piracy Act:

He was, in short, a hero of the Internet. No less a personage than Sir Tim Berners-Lee paid his respects to him after his passing. So, also, did Lawrence Lessig, Cory Doctorow, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

He was also a shit-disturber. He once freed, singlehandedly, 20% of American federal case law from behind a government paywall by copying the files -- produced by the US government, and therefore in the public domain -- to an open archive. I first heard about him, however, when he was arrested for downloading thousands of academic journal articles from JSTOR, for which Swartz had an account for being associated with Harvard. His alleged methods were, from a moral and legal standpoint, questionable; supposedly, after MIT tried to cut off his access he found other ways in, including breaking into a network closet and plugging his laptop directly into the router. Bizarrely, instead of charging him with B&E or trespassing or some such, the prosecutor threw the book at him, charging him with 5, and later 13, violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If convicted, he would have faced decades in prison and millions in fines.

Many people -- including his family -- think that the upcoming trial for this partially led to his suicide. For my part, it seems that way. The behavior of the prosecutor, one Carmen Ortiz, was irrational, as Lessig makes clear; after JSTOR wanted the charges dropped, she doubled down (adding the extra charges), and was painting him as the most notorious computer criminal since Kevin Mitnick. The case was, at the very least, an exemplar of this country's incredibly fucked up priorities when it comes to dispensing "justice". Swartz did all he did for the public good, and they treat him like a mobster. Meanwhile, people who have ruined a great economy, plunging millions into debt, literally destroying people's lives, are wined and dined at the White House. It renders the concept of American justice utterly laughable.

I care about this so much because in him, I see echoes of me, or perhaps the idealized me, the person I could be had I more courage that I presently possess. A shit-disturber for the common good, someone who could talk about anything and everything, an embodiment of Chaotic Good. It's caused me to reflect on my current path -- that is, not sticking my head out, lest someone chop it off. I suppose it's easier (but not easy!) when you have the luminaries of the Internet in your corner. But he had his bouts of depression, as have I. He wasn't perfect, by any means. But, I think, he's someone I can relate to. And salute.

I hope that he found some peace.


logomancer: Xerxes from System Shock 2 (Default)

January 2015


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