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A Call to Arms


Aaron Swartz has committed suicide.  He was 26.

Unlike many people trying to make sense of this upsetting news who were close to him, I only corresponded with Aaron a handful of times during some work with the Open Library.  I cannot attest to the person that Aaron was; but I can say with some certainty that I know the kind of person that he was.  He was very much a “hacker” in the original sense, and not at all a “hacker” in the contemporary, usually criminal sense.  It’s important to me to explain this, because the media, intentionally or not, usually gets it wrong.

I know the kind of person Aaron was because, like myself and many of my friends and colleagues (eg. in the Code4Lib culture), he was a child of the Internet.  Someone who got involved as a young teenager in an environment that could be changed, built upon, improved.  Someone who possessed that crazy, reckless naive optimism that all that was required to make things better was to take direct action.  And for reasons that don’t matter now, Aaron was one of the few who, probably inadvertently but certainly deservingly, gained some notoriety for his work.  What is most crucial to understand is that he had the honesty, the courage, the sheer gall to look at something and say: this is wrong and it needs to be made right.

Others who were more intimately involved in his legal situation, both personally and professionally, have already commented on the morality of his actions, and the simple, obvious fact is that the proposed penalty — three decades in a prison with rapists and murderers — is far, far more immoral than any act Aaron was ever capable of conceiving.  Even the organization that he essentially gave a digital middle finger to, JSTOR, has been relatively civil and respectful about these sad events (discussion).  What is truly disturbing is the hypocrisy in such an aggressive prosecution from a country that proclaims “bullying is bad” and “freedom is good”.

None of us will ever know why he decided to take his own life, but as someone who has struggled occasionally for years with my own depressive demons and sometimes missteps of judgement, I can understand how someone facing Aaron’s plight would see no other option.  That the actions of a corrupt publication industry, a damaged political system, and a backwards legal system, would unthinkingly drive a powerful young contributor to the global information commons of our time to that point; it makes explicit what many of us children of the Internet have quietly known for some time: this is an act of war.  Those of us who have dedicated our lives to openness, to learning, to sharing, to freedom — we have lost a comrade and a brother in the name of lobbyism and profiteering.

As others have said, “the dead are dead. Expressing love for their memory, support for the person, doesn’t have much value, because they are not here to receive it”.  Aaron proved that actions matter, and now more than ever, when our opponents have blood on their hands, we must channel our sadness and anger into action.  I never knew Aaron, but I was glad to know that he existed, someone with the talent and the chutzpah to do what is right.  Now he is gone, because we let him down.

Aaron’s death is wrong, and it needs to be made right.

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