The Null Device

RIP Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, esteemed hacker, co-creator of Reddit and inventor of the RSS 1.0 standard, committed suicide recently. Swartz was facing trial for illegally downloading a cache of academic documents from closed academic publishing site JSTOR (as pure a rent-seeking monopoly as exists, extracting lucrative sums from academic libraries and private user alike for access to academic papers which they contributed nothing to the creation of) by placing a laptop in a closet at MIT and fraudulently changing the laptop's MAC address to give it access to MIT's protected network, and apparently also for having pissed off the FBI at some point. There was no evidence of him having made any of the papers available to the general public, but nonetheless, the US Department of Justice decided to make an example of him, pushing for a sentence of 30-50 years.

In 18th-century England, when they hanged a highwayman, his corpse would be dipped in tar and hung in an iron cage along the side of a highway, as a grim warning to any others contemplating a career of highway robbery. From the point of view of the US Department of Justice, or more specifically, the rent-seeking corporations licensed to make money from the intellectual property system as it stands today, Swartz, with his radical views on open access to information, was the modern-day equivalent of a highwayman, an enemy of the system of intellectual property licensing and the structures of ownership and control built atop it, shoring up the stabilities of the status quo. Were he convicted (or bankrupted by the costs of defending himself), he would have served as the tarred corpse swinging in a gibbet alongside the Information Superhighway, an equally grim warning to any aspiring Information Superhighwaymen that you don't fuck with intellectual property, ever. Or, in other words: if you break the law, the law will break you. An upheld conviction, however, was no guarantee. Dead, arguably, he can serve the same role just as well, without the risk of him being released on appeal. To others, he will be a martyr for the Copyfight and/or an example of the iniquities of a system run for the benefit of corporate rentiers.

There are 2 comments on "RIP Aaron Swartz":

Posted by: Greg Thu Jan 17 12:52:38 2013

You don't need to be anti-copyright to be against the academic journal system. At best, it's a hangover from before the Internet: researchers don't need a journal publisher to deliver their writing to others - they can stick it on a web server.

The peer-review is handy, but the publishers don't even do that - they give the job to other researchers. Journal publishers play no part in getting research done, and then charge citizens to pay for accessing what they funded.

It's a dumb system. I could abide the researcher, or their employer, or research funding body, government or someone like that holding copyright, but not journal publishers. (It is possible to hold a milder position than "all information should be free" and still be offended by the journal system.)

Posted by: acb Thu Jan 17 19:49:36 2013

Swartz, however, was against Big Copyright, in particular, being involved in the fight against SOPA/PIPA. For this, he had to be made an example of. I imagine there were a lot of people in Hollywood and such sending memos to those involved saying things like “nail the sonofabitch to the wall”.

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