American Decline

The Closing of the Doors of Innovation: The Corporate-Government Asphyxiation of Aaron Swartz

Codex Sarepticus on the life and death of a modern-day Prometheus.


Several days ago, Lawrence Lessig, a friend and legal adviser for Aaron Swartz  released this statement regarding Aaron’s death (source):

(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)

Since his arrest in January, 2011, I have known more about the events that began this spiral than I have wanted to know. Aaron consulted me as a friend and lawyer. He shared with me what went down and why, and I worked with him to get help. When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend. Not a good enough friend, no doubt, but nothing was going to draw that friendship into doubt.

The billions of snippets of sadness and bewilderment spinning across the Net confirm who this amazing boy was to all of us. But as I’ve read these aches, there’s one strain I wish we could resist:

Please don’t pathologize this story.

No doubt it is a certain crazy that brings a person as loved as Aaron was loved (and he was surrounded in NY by people who loved him) to do what Aaron did. It angers me that he did what he did. But if we’re going to learn from this, we can’t let slide what brought him here.

First, of course, Aaron brought Aaron here. As I said when I wrote about the case (when obligations required I say something publicly), if what the government alleged was true — and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then — then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?

Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured “appropriate” out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash ofACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.

One word, and endless tears.

First, my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Aaron Swartz. For those of you unaware, he was notable Hacktivist, Social Justice advocate, Web programmer (who helped with the early stages of the RSS standard), and co-founder of Reddit, proponent of Creative Commons and Free Software. Brilliant young man, and child prodigy.

He is also known for one other thing. Back in January 2011, Aaron was charged for illegally downloading millions of academic papers from academic databases. If he would be convicted (his trial wasn’t set to start until April 1st, 2013), he would potentially face 50 years behind bars. On Friday January 11th 2013, his body was found hanged in his apartment — Aaron would rather have taken his own life, than be forced to live the dismal life as a convict in the American prison system.

The decision for him to end his own life was extreme and shocking, no doubt — but even more extreme and shocking is the State’s handling of his supposed crime of downloading academic publications: Fifty years behind bars. Aaron was not a murderer, not a rapist, not a bank robber; he was not a drug dealer, he was not a terrorist, he was not a foreign spy. He did not join the Taliban and plot terrorist attacks against America in Afghanistan.


Aaron’s  only crime was supposedly illegally downloading academic papersand we will see that he didn’t even do that– a man who smuggled the invaluable riches of Knowledge through dangerous lands of marauding, bloodthirsty, barbarous tribes of the Corporation, who wait by well-traveled roads with submachine guns and SWAT gear, ready punish anyone who brings such Knowledge without paying the toll-tax. Aaron was captured by one such barbarous tribe, and paraded humiliatingly in front of the Corporate Aristocrats’s tribunal like they’d finally caught some heretical leader of a rebellion: “WE GOT ‘EM! Fifty years for pirating books!”

Mainstream Media has been having a field day misconstruing this entire Aaron Swartz story.  Let me clear up a few things. First thing’s first, what exactly did Aaron do? He ran a script that mass downloaded academic papers from the academic paper database known as JSTOR – papers that were already freely accessibly to anyone with a guest account at MIT (and many other academic institutions throughout the world.) He did not hack into any accounts to access these files, he did not even download files illegally — no, everything he did was fully legal and within the Terms-of-Service of MIT and JSTOR. It is the equivalent of running a mass downloader to take already availiable free books from Project Gutenberg or pages from Wikipedia, or for taking out too many books at the library. (source)

The system administrator who discovered Aaron’s automated downloading on the MIT campus, upon noticing the laptop and the spike in web traffic, overreacted and jumped the gun, and performed no network tests to see what was actually going on (which isn’t hard to do if you’re a system administrator with total logs of all incoming and outgoing traffic, I can assure you — the moron couldn’t be bothered to run Packet Tracer!?!?) He merely accused Aaron of some diabolically evil hacking scheme, and called up Campus Police, who placed Aaron under arrest for cybercrime. The FBI had then been informed. Eventually, MIT and JTSOR dropped the charges — yes, JSTOR, the company that Aaron downloaded the papers from had dropped the chargesbut the FBI were still pushing for charges until the day Aaron died!

The Prosecution and the FBI were the ONLY ONES to push chargesnot MIT and not JSTOR, who understood Aaron to be doing everything entirely within the bounds of their own Terms of Service. The FBI and the Prosecution had been acting entirely on their own to paint Aaron — someone who legally downloaded academic papers with the later approval of JSTOR — as some kind of evil hacker seeking personal financial gain. MIT and JSTOR already dropped charges, and yet the FBI and Prosecution were pushing Aaron’s jail time for 50 years?

The FBI and the State Prosecution have GONE ROGUE – this is Vigilante Government, this is Big Government mustering together all of their corporate-state bestowed powers together in order to grasp at straws, and misdirect justice with their biases of Aaron as some kind of evil cyberterrorist for downloading too many free articles. Do the State Prosecution and FBI even know how actual cybercrime looks?

Because JSTOR and MIT chose to drop the charges against Aaron, the prosecution had to change their focus. They claimed he was acting for the purpose of financial gain — that he was going to supposedly sell these articles JSTOR already makes a available to anyone with an account. The Vigilante Government is grasping at straws to make their case somewhat plausible. Really, are you going to try to accuse a well-known Internet activist and philanthropist of profiteering from JSTOR papers — papers read by a handful of people for the duration of its internet shelf-life? That’s what your whole prosecution rests on? 50 years in prison for that?

This is proof the State is ignorant of how computers work, that the State is ignorant of how cybercrime actually operates, that the State is irrationally technophobic, and that the State is biased and misguided with its Draconian laws that only benefit the big corporations — yet we even see here the corporations involved didn’t even want that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the Rogue Vigilante State that will drain the West dry of any of its remaining innovation.

Where is the FBI in this pandemic of Email accounts getting hacked en masse daily for passwords, personal information, identity fraud, and credit card data? The State has no one’s interest in mind but the careers of anyone who can make it within its corrupt system.

In the Medieval Ages in Europe, after the collapse of the splendor that was Rome, and the plunder and destruction of the libraries , monasteries, and schools by barbarian tribes, and the rolling back of Europe to the Dark Ages, when the Middle-East and Asia were technologically far more advanced than Western Europe, people used to illegally bootleg and smuggle texts of philosophy, science, engineering, and medicine, from the Orient in order to enlighten their fellow man. Books were expensive, and a taxable commodity — prices that scientists and their patrons could not easily afford, and avoided as much as they could. Smugglers, scientists, and medieval technologists alike lived in fear of the reprisals of the Kings and the Church of what these new fruits of knowledge from the books meant for the world: how they would dramatically challenge the old Medieval ways of thinking, the old Theocratic status quo. Many such smugglers and intellectuals were hanged and burned at the stake, some were imprisoned, others got off with fines and house arrest.

Such smugglers and technologists of Progress is what Aaron Swartz in our 21st century equivalent context is (except for the fact that he hadn’t even stolen anything.)

Grieve as we do for the human price of Aaron’s tragic death, We have much to reflect on the meaning of his decision to download these millions of academic publications and spread them to enlighten the Masses as he has — to download millions of publications, which had previously been stuffed away in the recesses of the megalithic Ivory Tower, never to be seen anyone but a handful of specialists.

We have much to reflect on the meaning of the State’s decision to prosecute Aaron, to consider what he did worthy of 50 years behind bars inside of the American Gulag, and how that subsequently drove him to take his own life.

We have much to reflect on Newspeak words like Fraud and Theft in 21st century Corporate-controlled America, as mainstream media is accusing Aaron Swartz of doing by legally downloading too many academic papers.

And We have much to reflect on Aaron’s martyrdom at the ubiquitous tentacles of this Corporate Police State Empire that the United States is turning into. A Corporate Police State Empire, where so-called “Anti-Piracy Laws” like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA and DMCA, and “anti-Terrorism measures” of PATRIOT Act and and indefinite detection NDAA, and the flying unmanned aerial drones over the skies of America, are serving only to transform the United States into the world’s biggest Pirate and the biggest Terrorist, like something out of a really bad 1980s Sci-Fi dysopia film.

It’s funny how things always tend to turn into exactly the thing it is that they oppose.

As a rogue scholar and autodidact myself, let me enlighten you, my dear reader, on the nature of academic publications. The truth is, the vast majority of all academic publications – the vast majority of these millions of papers that Aaron downloaded — are read by an average of two to five people in the total span of their existence, if even. These publications are only accessible in tightly controlled database websites like JSTOR that require expensive subscriptions, or academic tuition (or tenure) to access. Or, they may be accessible inside of university libraries, which themselves require expensive memberships to access, often with a ridiculous list of restrictions for not being a part of the university. Trust me, I know, I’ve been there.

Access to these publications do not cater to the curious amateur, or to the ambitious self-(Internet)-taught autodidact, or to the rejected academic, or the independent scholar who is only slowed down by academic politics, or the recluse scientist who decides he is going to pursue his love of science despite being shunned by the academic community. Intelligence and Innovation are never measurements of how well someone can promote themselves, or how “nice” a person is — in fact, it’s often the exact opposite. In humility and prudence, the Scientist and the Intellectual often sell themselves short, often to the shun of the academic community, to the neglect of research grants, to crippling self-doubt that leads to the giving up of scientific pursuits altogether.

This kind of elitist, snobbish behavior by these corporate-academic databases to restrict access only to subscribing members is to say this: if you aren’t paying homage to our academic institution, if you aren’t in our elite club of academics, if you have no recognition in our institutions, then you’re a nobody. You  don’t deserve access to “our“ publications. Get lost, go figure it out for yourself — or spend $20, 000 a year attending our university, taking courses in subjects you already know, so we can bless you approvingly with a meaningless piece of parchment paper.

Now, the academic authors who write such papers that Aaron purportedly “stole”, are people who have labored tirelessly over years, sometimes decades, carrying out the research, performing experiments to exactitude, reading up on what the other academics have written on the subject, and quadruple-checking it all, presenting their ideas to other academics who might care to listen to them (and usually don’t), and then finally writing the paper. Even if the content of these papers is truly groundbreaking, the chance that these papers will have a substantial impact on the academic community — or even  impact the public — is incredibly nill unless you have connections.

These academics barely receive any recognition for their work, and receive little to no royalties for their papers. At best, these academics receive a little bit of recognition within the one tiny corner of the academic community they may actually have some standing in. It might help them find grants for future research. What business does a company like JSTOR or MIT have in restricting the public’s access to these groundbreaking science publications, if the authors aren’t even being compensated? What’s happening to those 98% of papers out there that aren’t featured in Nature or Science magazines, or on the big Science / Tech websites, because their impact is just not understood and casually glossed over by a science reporter? What the hell are they doing just rotting away on some database?

There’s another problem in science: REDUNDANCY. Most science that is done in the lab has already done, and only after the scientist has performed the experiment, do they realize it’s already been done. If this corporate-academic complex are just letting millions of these valuable academic papers rot away on some database, and refusing to hand them out because someone isn’t paying for a subscription, then how much are they HOLDING back scientific,  technological, medical, and human progress, with their corporate poll-taxing B.S.!?

What I mean to say is this: For every one of Einstein’s papers on Special and General Theory of Relativity published and receiving press, there were twenty that you’ve never even heard of. Twenty that we’ve never heard of: scientists who have had similar insights, who by random variance — perhaps the paucity of their academic institutions, perhaps the fact that they just weren’t ambitious enough, or maybe their papers weren’t read by the right people to get recognition for it — just didn’t quite experience the same success as Einstein had.

Gregor Mendel‘s (1822-1884) paper on Genetic Inheritance – the first to ever scientifically explore the nature of genetic inheritance — did not receive any recognition when it was published, and was rejected by the academia. It was not until 1900 – that is, *34* years after the publication, and long after Mendel was dead – that his work was “rediscovered” by accident as scientists were sifting through old publications. Mendel’s work, along with that of Charles Darwin, would lay the groundwork for the scientific discipline that we now call Genetics.

Imagine how much more readership — perhaps even patronage for his research — and how much further along would genetics research be! — would have Mendel had if he bootlegged his papers, and made them widely available among amateur, academic, and mad scientist alike? Or better yet, someone else to mass disseminate those papers. A bootlegger — a pirate of academic papers– someone like Aaron Swartz.

How many more Gregor Mendels are out there right now, whose papers won’t be read for another 34 years before they’ll have a lasting impact on the world — all just because the first impression of their paper was received poorly.

It’s also worth reflecting here on just how many scientists and academics past and present have relied on bootlegged manuscripts, pirated texts, and even outright stolen books, to perform work they would have been otherwise unable to afford or have access to. Some names from the past: Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein himself worked in a patent office, and personally illegally bootlegged all patents that were of interest to him – patents , which unlike academic publications, are confidential, and it’s a serious breach of confidentiality to bootleg them. I wonder how many years behind bars someone like Albert Einstein would get nowadays under these laws in America for pulling off a stunt like that. 120 years, maybe more? Would he even have time to discover E=MC², with the Corporations and the Law breathing down his throat?

The charges levied against Aaron, and his subsequent suicide — really, murder by proxy by cruel hands of the institutional machine of the Corporate Police State — represents a disturbing trend towards the closing of the doors of innovation in the Western world, and most especially in the United States.

How many more of these laws will Corporations lobby for out from sheer paranoia and fear of grassroots trends toward the freedom of information and the spreading of self-education? How many more brilliant scientists, engineers and intellectuals is the State going to shun from society because they refuse to operate in the cliquish, narrow-mindedness of the academia, which is being transformed into little more than a corporate training center? How many more men like Aaron Swartz is the State and the Corporation going to prosecute and drive to suicide for spreading the Light of Knowledge to humanity?

1 reply »

  1. To play Devil’s Advocate a little bit, journals surely need to have some recompense for the expense of peer-review, without which the scientific method would be a lot more difficult to operate. That’s up to JSTOR in their agreements with journals and users though.

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