|Image from here|
I had never heard about Aaron Swartz until Swaraj’s post below about his life and suicide. The internet is now abuzz with news reports about Swartz’s suicide, his ‘heroism’ and ‘bullying’ by the prosecutors of the U.S. Government. While not everybody is saying it in so many words, the overwhelming trend appears to blame the federal government prosecution of Swartz for his suicide. This, despite the fact there is no conclusive proof of such a link. Swartz is known to have written on his blog about being depressed but it is not clear whether he was clinically diagnosed as being depressed. Jumping to conclusions or even hinting at conclusions without concrete information is of extreme disservice to his grieving family who are grappling with this tragedy.
More importantly, I have an uneasy feeling that Swartz’s suicide is going to be used as the war-cry towards an even more extreme polarization of the already polarized debate over the standard of protection and dissemination of intellectual property over the internet.
We saw something similar happen when Swartz was first arrested for illegally hacking into MIT and JSTOR’s computer systems in 2011. The best piece, by David Fagundes, about the polarized reporting over his arrest can be found here on ‘Concurring Opinions’, which is available over here. Contrasting the reportage of two different internet websites, on Swartz’s arrest, the author states that “Each article’s rhetorical posturing pushes it to use inapt and misleading analogies”.
At the time, most of the ultra-hacktivist websites made out Swartz’s only crime to be downloading academic articles from JSTOR for further academic dissemination without profiteering from the same. What these websites however omit to mention is the remaining charges mentioned in the indictment.
According to the indictment, available over here, Swartz was arrested only after he made repeated attempts to hack into the computer networks of both MIT and JSTOR and more importantly after he physically broke into a secured room on the MIT campus to access MIT’s computer network, an act which was caught on a security camera.
Swartz’s friends from the Demand Progress alliance had then told the media that both MIT and JSTOR had asked the Government to not prosecute Swartz but according to the Boston Globe, this claim was contradicted at least by JSTOR. According to the paper “But Heidi McGregor, vice president of communications for JSTOR, said her agency never told the government not to prosecute Swartz. She said her company’s focus was on “making sure the data was secure and the data was not disseminated, so we were happy we got that result.’’ McGregor said she could not comment on the federal government’s decision to bring charges.”
And about the claim that Swartz never meant to profit from the distribution of JSTOR’s article, that does not seem relevant because the issue over here is not whether Swartz would have made profit but whether JSTOR would have suffered by Swartz’s distribution of their articles. And yes, if Swartz had distributed (he was stopped before he could do it) the JSTOR articles for free, JSTOR would have probably been affected because it survived on subscription fees to access its articles.
Swartz was clearly a genius and making information publicly available was a noble goal but we live in a world of laws and the means matter much as the ends. Are hacking into the computer networks of a non-profit organization and trespassing into private property the right way to accomplish this objective? Regardless of ideology, reporting and the actual reasons for Swartz’s untimely suicide, his death should not be glorified or demonized by closeted ideologies looking to further propagate their cause.
We must mourn but we must not forget that there is no glory in death by suicide.