Tribute to Aaron Swartz: Watch his “How we stopped SOPA” keynote at F2C2012

Open access to scholarly literature and research online depends upon an open Internet. It is easy to forget this is not a given. The Internet has become such an integral part of our daily lives as academics. We can hardly imagine now a world without it. We have sensed its potential and have been building an information infrastructure based on our experiences with its free beginnings. It is easy to take that freedom for granted.

It was one year ago today that Congressional leaders in the United States shelved two pieces of legislation, ostensibly geared toward curbing online piracy, but which could have had far-reaching and unintended consequences, threatening through censorship this concept of a free and open Internet.

It was a close call. The House bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate version, the PROTECT Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), were widely believed, both within Congress and among their supporters in the media industry (including many commercial academic publishers), to be destined for easy passage. However, a groundswell of organizational and, most significantly, citizen opposition forced the lawmakers to back down.

A significant voice in that citizen opposition to SOPA and PIPA was a fellow named Aaron Swartz. Aaron was a prodigious young computer programmer and an activist dedicated to the fight for free and open access to information and knowledge on the Internet.

If you’ve ever attached a Creative Commons license to a research article, book, blog (mine!), or media production, Aaron’s contribution was there. If you’ve ever subscribed to a blog or received webpage updates using RSS, Aaron’s contribution was there. If you’ve ever visited Internet Archive, Open Library, or Wikipedia (as an editor), Aaron’s contribution was there, too.

Tragically, Aaron was found dead in his apartment on the morning of January 11, 2013, apparently the result of suicide. He was 26 years old.

This is a terrible and sorrowful loss. But resisting the temptation to engage in speculation or offer analysis, I found the most fitting tribute to Aaron Swartz on this anniversary of the defeat of SOPA and PIPA was simply to take 23 minutes to watch the keynote address he gave at the F2C: Freedom to Connect conference held in Washington, DC on May 21-22, 2012. In the speech, Aaron tells a story about how it was ordinary people, not a big company like Google, that won this round in the fight “to save this crucial freedom.” Open access depends upon an open Internet. Let’s not take that freedom for granted.

Posted in "The Hat Tip", Intellectual Property & Copyright, Open Access
5 comments on “Tribute to Aaron Swartz: Watch his “How we stopped SOPA” keynote at F2C2012
  1. skjandrews says:

    Thanks for this, Gary. I fully agree with you about this wonderful idea for a tribute. Last Monday I took the time to watch this and I was deeply impressed with how relatively humble he was about the whole thing. I’m sure on some level his humility was warranted, that it really is only evidence of people joining together to do something they all believed in. This story about the continued power of democracy is an important take away from the video and from the events he took part in during his life. But he also seems to have died before he really understood how important he was as a leader – and how important he could have been. It is easy to channel people’s passion and anxieties into demotic causes with no chance of advancing social progress; it is much harder to figure out – and to help them figure out – where the real struggle is taking place. That, it seems to me, was the reason he had to be punished severely (which he was, Volokh Conspiracy assertions aside.) Not only was he a very public activist – but he had the technical skills to hack the political economy of the U.S. State.

    In hearing from one of the expert witnesses, my thought was that he had really chosen a soft target –

    MIT and JSTOR both had pretty pitiful security on them, in part because JSTOR is a non-profit that is still run by people mostly interested in the advancement of knowledge rather than its complete commodification.

    In other words, he was testing his abilities on a system he thought would be relatively easy – the kind of penetration test that people pay cybersecurity firms good money to deploy. Though people claim he was going to make it all public, I don’t believe he ever did or could say. He did it with PACER, but that was already public information. It would be interesting to know if anyone at JSTOR can tell us what he planned to do with it – or the story he told them about it. He took a great risk, and except for the U.S. Justice Department (and perhaps MIT) he might have got away with it.

    Whatever comes, I think this will be one of the most memorable moments in our struggle. It is a fantastic loss. If you don’t believe us, watch the video and think of what this person might have done over the next 20 – 50 years. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this post. I’ve seen links to this video a few times already, but only now took time to actually watch it. And it’s really impressive. The key message: politics has always been and will always be – strongly influenced by big money, no matter how “democratic” the whole process looks from the outside; it’s a constant effort and responsibility of everyone to keep “democracy” democratic, otherwise it will slip into tyranny of a handful of influential people from big media and businesses, with peoples’ will only on the facade.

    I’m particularly impressed that Aaron – who was a computer geek rather than a political activist – was able to see through this facade and understand real mechanics of the legislatory “magic” around SOPA. He saw much deeper than most professional politicians, not to mention ordinary people. Exactly the same “magic” took place in Europe around ACTA – if not mass protests in Poland, the bill would be passed in all Europe, as well as US, Japan and other countries.

    A side note: in many articles recently, Aaron’s downloading of JSTOR was called a “crime”. This is very unjust. Aaron didn’t make any crime: he downloaded papers that were made available to him by JSTOR because of his academic affiliation – that’s perfectly ethical, especially given the absurd situation with academic publishing (huge paywalls, low access, publishers cashing in on taxpayer-funded research). Even if he broke MIT’s agreement with JSTOR, this was MIT’s agreement not Aaron’s, he didn’t sign it himself and it’s MIT who was responsible for its proper implementation, with all security measures as necessary to prevent excessive download (if this was forbidden by the agreement). Moreover, the term “crime” in relation to Aaron is unjust because there was no court’s sentence in his case, and even more because Aaron can no longer defend himself. For the internet community, it would be best if Aaron’s trial were continued till the final sentence, to clean his false reputation as a “criminal”, whom he surely wasn’t.

  3. Dagobert Uljanow says:

    I am very sad that this young, energetic, inventive, curious person was driven to take his life.

  4. Gary F. Daught says:

    JSTOR has added a statement about Aaron Swartz on its website .

  5. […] I invite you to head over to the Wetmachine: Tales of the Sausage Factory blog, where public interest attorney Harold Feld has posted the text of a speech he delivered as part of a panel discussion on Tuesday evening at The Jewish Study Center, Washington, D.C. on the topic of intellectual property law and Jewish ethics. The panel discussion was inspired by the death (suicide) of internet and open access activist Aaron Swartz. (I posted a tribute to Aaron Swartz back on January 20, 2013 here.) […]

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