Aaron Swartz – R.I.P

Hello folks, The monthly Bangpypers meet was scheduled yesterday and I decided to attend it. Only on reaching the venue did I realise that it was a combined Bangpypers – Hasgeek event. The reason – It was a meeting in memory of Aaron Swartz, the creator of web.py, the guy behind reddit, and above all the one who standardised RSS.

Kiran from Hasgeek gave a detailed overview of Aaron’s contribution to the society. Before I attended this meet, I just knew him as the creator of web.py and a co-founder of reddit. Only after listening to Kiran did I understand the true level of Aaron’s contributions. And what’s surprising is he did all that in just 26 years of life!!

Aaron was not just a tech-savvy child prodigy. He was an activist who believed on open access to data. No wonder, he spent his money, got the catalog of books from the Library of Congress (you need to pay to get a copy), put up his copy on the open library for every to access free of cost. Since that was a public document, it was not copy-righted and so he *DID NOT* break any law there. He attempted the same thing with PACER – the digital version of court room proceedings. And that cost him really a lot, but being a activist who had money as well, he paid,downloaded close to 20% of all PACER data and put it up for everyone to access free of cost. And of course by then, the US govt found it out and stopped him. He created massive awareness programs against the ills of SOPA, and in 3-4 days his campaign garnered enough support to make the congress shelve the SOPA. Then came the JSTOR incident, which was blown out of propotions, and eventually led to his suicide. Imagine – A public prosecutor suggesting 35 years in prison for Aaron because he attempted to make academic knowledge accessible to public!!

All the arguments about the huge expenses involved in research and subsequent publishing of journals, and hence what Aaron did is wrong may/may not be valid. But there are 2 far fundamental question to be answered.

1) How ethically and morally valid is it to lock up academic journals and grant access only to the rich and mighty ? Or, of what use is such knowledge that is not shared with an curious and enthusiastic, but economically poor student ?

2) What should be the intention of lawyers – To win at all cost, Or, to fight for justice to the society ?

For question 1, the answers vary widely. I am myself a free software enthusiast and hence naturally someone who things all data, (except personal info and those related to national security) should be made public, and granted free access. Copyright and patents are already a big menace to the society. If we add paid access to knowledge and information, we are going down a path of destruction.

Question 2 is more of a self-pomdering. Laws were formed to protect the public from one another, and mainly to protect the common man from the rich and powerful. And when we apply laws, we shouldn’t blindly go by the book. The circumstances and the intentions should be looked at. Additionally, lawyers shouldn’t get into courts with the intention of winning at all costs. Their arguments should be towards establishing a better society.

So, in this case of Aaron, all he did was attempt to make locked up academic data available to public. And again, he agreed to return all downloaded data back. Mind you, JSTOR themselves did not accuse him of anything and suggested that charges against him be dropped. And yet, these public prosecutors, are going for his throat. The reason – Aaron had caused a few embarrassment for his government, by freeing up Library of Congress data, PACER data, and more importantly, fought against SOPA. In just over 3-4 days, he made enough noise and stopped SOPA. To avenge for all that, the lawyers suggested a 35+ year prison sentence when he should have actually been praised and eulogised.  

Aaron’s is a case in which the law failed to protect the good samaritan. And there sure have been many other such cases. Let we, as a species with common sense, think about the society and its well-being, when enact/use laws.


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