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Aaron Swartz and the Fight for Information Freedom

In the madness of our media-fed consciousness, the greatest threat to an informative news story is time. Given enough time, and the dysfunctional and disinformative way the mainstream media cover news, even the most important and revealing story quickly dies out.

That is, unless we who use alternative media keep that story alive.

So it is with the death of the remarkable technologist Aaron Swartz. It's been only a month since Aaron apparently killed himself in his apartment here in Brooklyn and yet the story has pretty much disappeared from mainstream news. The threat is not only that the legacy of this remarkable young technologist will also disappear but that the analysis of his life and death and the policies they bring into relief will be frustrated.

During the brief spasm of mainstream coverage, the most prominent line being circulated was that he was a casualty of the sloppiness, pettiness and bullying of a federal government that went too far in its prosecution of him. The truth is that Aaron Swartz was a target of a deliberately vicious, sadistic government campaign in which the federal government wanted to make his pain an example to the entire progressive techie community. What's more, his death was the outcome of a policy that is a threat to human freedom. That's why we need to keep talking about Aaron Swartz.

To talk that talk, it's important to be clear about what actually happened.

Aaron Swartz, casualty in the battle to defend freedom of informationAaron Swartz, casualty in the battle to defend freedom of information

 

Swartz was a 26-year-old programmer and Internet activist whose accomplishments would be stellar for a person three times his age. He wrote many programs that are now used routinely on the Internet and its servers, he helped build resource websites to gather and provide those kinds of resources to people who needed them and he was active in organizing around issues of freedom and access. In the techie universe, he was a blazing super-star.

Like every committed progressive techie, Aaron Swartz believed that information should be accessible to everyone and, over the years, he campaigned against information hoarding and restriction and took concrete actions that dramatized that important issue. One day he walked into a server room at MIT (to which he had full, legal access) and set up a small device that captured files from a server belonging to JSTOR, a private company that was selling downloadable scholarly papers and materials for a dime a page. (This, by the way, is not money that goes to the actual creators of the materials in question. It goes to JSTOR and MIT. For the most part, the copyright laws are being used to enrich corporations, not creators, as publishers and employers routinely require the creators, on an entortionate take-it-or-leave-it basis, to sign over their control of copyright when they sign a publishing contract or an employment contract.)

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