January 12, 2013

The Many Killers of Aaron Swartz

There are days when sitting down to write is a joy. This isn't one of them.

I've been accused of pacing like a caged animal while thinking, and of my initial observable reactions to tragedy seeming more analytical than emotional.

And truth be told, today I have indeed worn a deep furrow in my cage, and my protective channeling of Mr. Spock is very much in full bloom. There's time for crying later.

In the case of Aaron Swartz's suicide at age 26, we begin at the end of the story, can flashback to origins, and in doing so we find a very broad, and to some extent largely predictable, cast of characters and events.

Entangled with the immediate horror of Aaron's death are a set of ironies suitable for a Shakespearean drama.

It's been noted that Aaron apparently took his life two years to the day after his arrest by MIT authorities for the JSTOR-related break-ins and thefts of which he had been accused and was awaiting trial. And the fact that just a couple of days ago, it was announced that JSTOR documents would (on a limited basis) become available for free public access is also impossible to ignore. To speculate that both of these points played into Aaron's thinking, given the public knowledge that he had been struggling with depression for years before any of these events took place, seems entirely reasonable, and immensely disturbing.

But the awful irony is that none of this needed to have occurred at all.

For the ultimate outcome of the underlying battle in which Aaron and others in the "information should be free" movement have been fighting -- whether one agrees with this perspective or not -- has already been decided, and neither sacrifices nor crucifictions are likely to change the long-term course of events.

Indeed, the traditional concept of copyright and content control is already doomed by technological changes -- the ability to quickly copy, store, preserve, mirror, and communicate data around the world nearly instantaneously.

Business models predicated on limiting access to data, either by assuming time and expense in duplication and transfer, or via false confidence in fragile Digital Rights Management (DRM) and other so-called "anti-piracy" measures, are rapidly becoming zombies now, still acting as if their old status quo could last forever, while the real world passes them by.

True, this process has not proceeded as rapidly as some would like. It is, in many respects, like an enormous steamroller lumbering toward a destination that is already set and immutable. And like when dealing with a steamroller, anyone who gets in its path, either to try block its progress or even to urge it onward, runs the risk of being crushed by its plodding yet relentless movement.

It's tempting to oversimplify the tragedy in this case, but the players are many and there is painful blame to spread far and wide.

Major content producers, by pushing for the criminalization of associated "hacking" and data thefts to be treated more harshly in many cases than crimes of violence -- all to try protect their obsolete business models -- carry much of the guilt.

The politicians who then acted to create associated draconian penalties subject to overzealous invocation, and the publicity-seeking prosecutors who use prosecutorial discretion as a lethal weapon, certainly share the blame as well.

Saddest to say, Aaron himself played a major role too, voluntarily painting a giant target on his own back, not just through the scope of the unauthorized data copying of which he was accused, but by reportedly physically entering MIT network wiring closets and planting computers there for months at a time as part of the process.

That Aaron felt he was morally justified in his actions is clear -- and unfortunately irrelevant to the government's interest in "making an example" of his behaviors in particular.

And while it's obvious to virtually all observers that the government vastly overstepped the bounds of appropriate prosecution in this case, it is also sadly true that their reaction to this sort of situation -- given the recently toughened laws that had been put in place at the time -- should not have come as an enormous surprise. Remember that steamroller.

Which brings us back to the present, and the needless death of a young man who really had only begun to live.

While the sorts of theoretical maximum sentences and fines that have been discussed for his case sound very alarming, the reality is that federal sentencing guidelines, especially for relatively young first offenders, point to vastly lesser penalties, especially when the government proceeded to prosecution without the support of the technically aggrieved parties, as in this case.

But that's small comfort in the end. Nobody wants to go to prison at all, and the personal financial result from such a trial, even with the best possible outcomes for a defendant, would still probably be ruinous.

I likened all this to a Shakespearean drama earlier -- but perhaps a Greek tragedy is more apt an analogy.

When we mere imperfect mortals deem to pit even our most righteous beliefs against the timorous gods of old, it is simultaneously an act of faith and the voluntary assumption of enormous risk, for the gods of obsolescence still possess mighty powers indeed.

In the end, the old gods of information scarcity and control will indeed die, and more open models will win the future.

Until then, as the path leading to that future continues to be laid through battles yet to come, it might do us well to ponder the many killers of Aaron Swartz, and the very human guilt and frailties that we all -- each and ever one of us -- must jointly share.

Rest in peace, Aaron.


Posted by Lauren at January 12, 2013 01:43 PM | Permalink
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