Mercury Rising 鳯女

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Another sacrifice to Pluto/updated

Posted by Charles II on January 13, 2013

(Video via UnaSpenser, DK)

Via Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, lawyer Larry Lessig tells the tragic tale of a young, infinitely-talented, public-spirited man brought to suicide by malicious prosecution, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Among his accomplishments (By Anne Cai, MIT Daily Tech):

The accomplished [Aaron] Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, founded Infogami which later merged with the popular social news site reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”

Rick Perlstein of the Nation remembers him as a friend:

I remember a creature who seemed at first almost to be made up of pure data, disembodied—a millionaire, I had to have guessed, given his early success building a company sold to Condé Nast, but one who seemed to live on other people’s couches. (Am I misremembering that someone told me he crashed in his apartment for a while, curling up to sleep under a sink?)

Only slowly, it seems, did he come to learn that he possessed a body. This is my favorite thing he wrote: about the day “I looked up and realized I couldn’t read the street sign. I definitely used to be able to read that sign, but there it was, big and bright and green along the highway, and all I could make out was a blur. I had gone blind.” Legally blind, it turned out; and then when he got contact lenses, he gave us an account of what it felt like to leave Plato’s cave: “I had no idea the world really looked like this, with such infinite clarity. It looks like a modernist photo or a hyperreal film, everything in focus everywhere. Everyone kept saying ‘oh, do you see the leaves now?’ but the first thing I saw was not the leaves but the people. People, individuated, each with brilliant faces and expressions at gaits, the sun streaming down upon them. I couldn’t help but smile. It’s much harder being a misanthrope when you can see people’s faces.”

This kind man dedicated his life to making information accessible, not for his own profit, but for the good of us all. He was a leader in Stop SOPA, for exaqmple, which this blog supported.

But in making information accessible, he ran afoul of the commercial world. Offended that court documents compiled at public expense were sold back to the public by Pacer, Swartz downloaded a lot of it at his own expense, and made it available for free. Although this was legal, he had to face questioning by the FBI. What got him into trouble was that he downloaded scholarly papers from JSTOR to do the same thing. Although these articles are also produced at public expense, publishers collect enormous fees, often a dollar or more per page, to those who need to access them. With more and more journals fully electronic, this creates a dangerous chokepoint on technical knowledge that threatens small, entrepreneurial businesses.

When confronted, Swartz offered to return all copies, JSTOR did not see any reason to prosecute. MIT was less clear. But the prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, decided to throw the book at him. Glenn Greenwald:

He adamantly refused to plead guilty to a felony because he did not want to spend the rest of his life as a convicted felon with all the stigma and rights-denials that entails. The criminal proceedings, as Lessig put it, already put him in a predicament where “his wealth [was] 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.”

According to Greenwald, if all the allegations by the Feds were correct, Swartz should have been prosecuted for simple trespass. He cites Timothy B. Lee:

Assuming the facts in the indictment are true, Swartz is something like a digital trespasser. Under Massachusetts law, such trespassing is punishable by a $100 fine and up to 30 days in prison. That seems about right: if he’s going to serve prison time, it should be measured in days rather than years.

At the bottom of this is the tension between art and commerce. Science, literature, and all creative endeavors are generated by an irrepressible impulse to add to the world. Their creators want to be rewarded by a livelihood, of course, but few obtain much of one. Instead, commerce takes the overwhelming portion of the rents of their work, whether it be the profits of publishers or of pharmaceutical companies. The public is told that laws preventing unauthorized reproduction are for the protection of the creator, but this is mostly false. If the primary beneficiary were the producer, then producers would be wealthy. Instead, the creative side of human life is being driven out of existence.

Nowhere is this more true than in scientific work, where access to the literature is the sine qua non of creativity. If small companies followed the laws and regulations to the letter, few would exist. In various ways, they circumvent them. Large companies do, too, though they pay for more of their literature. The people who Swartz would have benefited would have been small entrepreneurs, recent graduates with a dream, cranky old inventors, and all the other creative people who are what made America so technologically dynamic.

One more beautiful human life has been sacrificed to Pluto, god of Money. There are no words.
Added: Expert witness Alex Stamos, who had planned to testify for Swartz, says that:

If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you…

Update: Tom Levinson at Balloon Juice believes that MIT, thanks to its new president Rafael Reif, has begun a serious self-examination of their role in Aaron Swartz’s death. I have my own view of MIT (see, for example this post). It is a school in some ways run by and for corporations: lots of fun if you are a player, but the system is easily corrupted. MIT could be/become a leader in championing open information, which would only be fair considering how much their entrepreneurial culture depends on what scientific publishers would call “theft of intellectual property.” Let’s hope so.

And emptywheel wants to know whether MIT brought in the Secret Service (my guess is not).

One Response to “Another sacrifice to Pluto/updated”

  1. Thank you for covering this.

    A mind on a par with Feynman’s and Einstein’s, and with ethics to match, gone while in his sweet prime, all because some rentiers had a hissy fit and a prosecutor wanted to go Javert on him and make a name for herself in the process.

    At least one systems administrator I’ve encountered has said words to the effect that he will never, ever turn in another kid for doing what Aaron did. He couldn’t live with himself, knowing that he would have condemned the kid to thirty to fifty years in prison. Or, as in Aaron’s case, to death.

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