Posted: 18 Jan 2020

Knowledge access: The Aaron Swartz story

[TRANSCRIPTION] Hi everyone. January then, the month where many of us make New Years resolutions. What are your new year resolutions for the year ahead? In the internet activists calendar January has historically become known as a month that defined the decade. Nearly a decade ago the internet was being attacked, but not by geeks, but by the US government, and the year was 2012. And one of the champions in this story is cyber-activist and coding legend Aaron Swartz. Thousands of internet users followed Aaron’s decisive action, making activists out of anyone and everyone, daring them to challenge old thinking. People campaigned online, but also protested in the streets. Basically to save the internet. Think of it like a ‘knowledge-extinction rebellion’. So episode 2 of UpYourEnglish – Aaron Swartz: The Internet’s Good Downloader.

Before getting into the main part of the episode I want to explain a little bit about the idea. I’ll be your guide as we journey into looking at a topic that explores issues related to disobedience mixing in ideas from technology, society and culture, basically our daily lives. I’ll talk about the things I’m interested and hope you will also be interested in discovering more about. And what about the format of this podcast? Head over to the website and you can get access to the transcript accompanying each episode. Some of these episodes have been rerecorded from an academic lecture series on ‘technology and society’. So let me tell you something about it.

Most people who do podcasts usually have, let’s say, a proper job. You know, they make a living. Podcasting you might say is moonlighting, it’s a side hustle. It’s not the main gig. So in my professional daily worklife I’m employed at an information science engineering school called EPITA. There I coach Apprenticeship students in English and also do a course on technology and ethics. So putting the two together, UpYourEnglish offers a change to improve your vocabulary and language expression whilst sharing reasonable and contemporary ideas. Sharing ideas in any language, let alone a second language should be on everybody’s list.

For this episode we will travel back to look at one year in the life of anti-hero, 26 year old cyberactivist Aaron Swartz. Between 2012-2013 he went from riding a wave of celebration, in January 2012, publicly winning against the US government; to a sad low-point, January 2013, Swartz was found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment just a year later. Aaron Swartz’s lifetime resolution was ingrained in him, to promote access to knowledge: for the betterment and advancement of a fairer and balanced society. His internet disobedience rightly brought him fans, but oh yes, also made him prey to the brutal and the corrupt justice system.

Aaron Swartz: The Internet’s Good Downloader. Swartz was a rebel, with a cause. And his fight was against wealth disparity. His combat tools of choice: his own charisma and his skill with code. Oozing with charisma the cyber-activist could easily rally protesters for causes close to his heart, both online but also at street level. However through his selfless activities Swartz became a target of an unjust US government law. That law is called the CFAA (the computer fraud and abuse act). He was just one of many. And in short, what is it which highlights Swartz’s story over others? It’s that he had more of a public persona than many of the others who were documented. Usual prosecutions under the CFAA were about financial or credit-card fraud, but Swartz’s only crime was to be curious, showing that access to knowledge was a basic human right.

Ahead of unpacking what the CFAA (the computer fraud and abuse) stands for, let’s look at the pivotal moment where Swartz plays a role in stopping of the most brutal copyright regulations in the history of internet law being passed. Jan 2012. It’s the time the Obama administration was forced to kill the bill before it was enacted. This bill was called SOPA, the Stop Internet Piracy Act.

Ok, so, SOPA was a law proposed as a pro-copyright law at the highest order, its full name: the Stop Internet Piracy Act. At its root it sounds fine, but the word ‘piracy’ is key here. The US government were lost on how to combat the minds of talented curious coders. So this regulating law was sold as a protecting Intellectual Property law. But on the negative side meant no more sharing in any shape or form. No innovation. Criminal penalties imposed anything up to 5 years in prison, for simply sharing cultural references. And you have to keep in mind that the internet at time was a creative outlet for the whole online sharing and remix culture that, well, we have today.

Ending the Stop Online Piracy Act has become legendary in the ‘knowledge’ internet timeline, which is partly due how it was won. It was won using intelligence. Swartz was a visionary and he pioneered the internet was a good force for disseminating knowledge. And Aaron is in fact the main proponent of today’s modern online petition site culture. At this time in 2012 his petition site acted as a tool for migrating an antiquated paper petitioning system to be more rapid and quickly delivered. For Aaron the internet gave power to the civilians. So a mass event of civil disobedience which was initiated as an online petition eventually hit the streets and floored the US Government into submission.

The convergence of online and street level activism collided with sufficient energy that on 18th January 2012 major websites joined the protest. They kind of went offline. Homepages like Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Mozilla and Flickr, and maybe GoDaddy should be added there; they went black. On the one hand maybe to symbolise censorship and on the other hand to mourn the possible death of the internet through SOPA. Overnight the US Senate majority obviously having had a sleepless night shifted from 80 for/31 against, swinging to a massive 101 against the SOPA bill. The bill was killed. And Aaron’s job in publicly fixing the internet had just begun.

The architecture, or let’s say, the plumbing of the internet we use today does not resemble in any shape or form, the internet which Aaron successfully campaigned for. His memory does though stir debate. Today we continue to talk about the provenance of ‘knowledge’ on the internet. We pose questions like: Who owns its access? Is knowledge only accessible to those who can afford it? Is knowledge in fact a ‘luxury’ item?

Aaron was asking these questions at the same time in the late naughties (2000s) to challenge antique copyright system which itself was being sucked into a massive online sharing network, our internet. Here’s a brief chronology of Swartz’s innovations at such a young age: at 12 years old he won the attention of the adults in the room for inventing an online collaborative encyclopaedia; going on to win a prestigious award in the category of creator for ‘online tools for educational and collaboration’; at 14 years old drafted the specification which updates today’s modern websites, and that’s called RSS.

And what motivated him? He mainly saw technology as ‘imperfect’, his ideas were forming at time when the internet was propagating a Free Culture philosophy, basically filesharing, uploading and downloading. The institutions relying on analogue copyright principles couldn’t keep up now that most things were being put online. People were sharing ideas, music, films, books, anything that could be digitized, and at such a rapid speed. Aaron brought his high level thinking and technical ability to the problem and set out to modernise, well let’s call it, to modernise the copyright law.

Though this massive shift was a great advantage for knowledge sharing, some, including governments saw this as a digital Wildwest; and it’s here the dual would be fought. The US government saw a hinterland for disobedient rouges. Swartz also saw it as a digital Wildwest himself, but with little interest in making money, his ambition was solely to fix the web. So not yet in the sights of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI), at just 15 years old built a tool which would redefine the boundaries of online copyright law. You’ll know it as a Creative Commons. It’s a license used today on modern websites like Flickr.

To understand the impact Aaron has played in this story of curiosity and disobedience it is crucial to look at the political and academic terrain in which the ‘knowledge’ internet existed. Why am I using this term ‘knowledge’ internet? It’s a term I’ve decided characterizes how the internet was developing in the years running up until Swartz’s untimely death. This includes corners of the web for uploading and disseminating citizen knowledge, geeky knowledge and research knowledge. These became known as Wikipedia, trhe encyclopedia for general citizens; Reddit, that geeky corner of the web; and online academic journal repositories such as Jstor for cataloguing published research. So let’s dissect this Wikipedia, Reddit, Jstor imperative: their use came at a time of a ‘Free Culture’ movement. But as we’ve seen Swartz wasn’t advocating ‘free’, but more correctly, access. And more more precisely he criticised publishing companies for creating a ‘competitive marketplace of ideas and knowledge’.

The internet’s own punk; an original thinker. Swartz is the mind behind many of today’s major domestic internet protocols; the plumbing and pipelines making it actually flow. In the wake of Swartz’s death, he leaves as his legacy a trail of salient internet functionalities which he either built solely or co-authored using his knowledge and his abilities: to upload a blogpost for instance, to edit a Wikipedia entry, to read the news on your phone, to easily find podcasts, to use Flickr photos, to petition governments online. All of these are his cannon.

With these being his main creations, tools which embraced the remix culture of the late naughties (2000s) I want to plant this question for you to consider, and that is why… why does a government push back so hard against a visionary like Aaron Swartz, especially where they’re trying to bring order to, and not only an antiquated copyright system, but also to improve every citizen’s access to knowledge? This brings us onto looking at the unfair CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) which even today remains unjust and a rogue law.

To do this let’s backtrack slightly. During the time that Swartz was petitioning against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and winning, behind the scenes the FBI, you know, they were building a case against Swartz. He’d become its poster boy enemy, the prodigious cyber-activist was fair game. Critics of the CFAA say it’s ‘a one size fits all sledgehammer’ for smashing anything or anyone seemingly disobedient. So, Swartz had his optimism battered and diminished to a point of no return – suicide. A year after the SOPA win, Swartz as we heard earlier was discovered hanged on 11 Jan 2013 in his Brooklyn apartment.

So why is the CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) such a bad deal? Let’s understand it through the level of ‘computational power’ that was available during the time it was created, in 1986. Computer equipment was ‘mainframe’; we had ‘green ascii text’, ‘black screen monitors’, ‘clunky keyboards’; for heavens sake, we are talking Microsoft Windows 1.0. Please. In 1986 state-of-the-art tech was the noisy modem and financial institutions, well, were the main tech innovators.

With that in mind, the CFAA was actually used to prosecute against financial fraud; but Swartz was not interested in money, we know that. His currency was knowledge. But Aaron’s ability and vision to build tools to help disseminate and share knowledge seemed to hit a seismic wave in government circles. The US government became paranoid, reactionary, defensive. And they’d found a way to protect knowledge access, in the form of an antiquated law, the CFAA, which they retrofitted to destroy the boy who was simply trying to modernise copyright law for the knowledge internet.

Now, like many people, I’m not against the need for copyright. Of course artists and producers need to be paid, but copyright itself comes from a time way before ‘The Information Super Highway’. Swartz understood well the dilemma. There were growing commercial and corporate uses of The Information Highway, but the internet was originally envisaged as a free access space for connecting and sharing knowledge and ideas.

By 2011 ‘knowledge’ was quickly being commercialised as a corporate currency. This was by educational journal publishers, you know, charging extortionate subscription fees to access its databases. Journal publishers then had become as Swartz said “gatekeepers of knowledge,” as they always had been. But the difference today is the internet’s power for disseminating knowledge in duplicate. So on one hand the American educational journal publishers could tantalize people with their knowledge, but lock them out if they couldn’t afford the subscription fee.

In Swartz’s mind, the world harbours innovative thinkers everywhere and latent talent comes fro across continents. So limiting access to ‘academic’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge to individuals, institutions, through financially prohibitive cost is immoral. Overall, his philosophy was and remains in the minds of those who continue to keep his mission alive, to make access to knowledge an abundant right. Access can spark innovation, access can igniting medical breakthroughs, and more generally so, access narrows the gap on inequality.

But for all his bright thinking and new world ability, the FBI, took this as a threat, overreached, and began to hack at its own CFAA law to build a case against Swartz. No longer just a bill to protect financial records, US Congress strangely decided to extend it to protect a ‘knowledge internet’. Let’s open this up more.

This private, yet confident 26 year old American boy basically knew the internet inside-out, you know, like the back of his hand. And this ability caused him to be seen as dangerous to both commercial and governmental interests. To grasp the unjust severity in how US Congress reacted to Swartz I need add that the US government sees geeks as communists; but exception of Senator Zoe Lofgren, Senator Zoe Lofgren who in memory of Swartz took the CFAA, tried to updated it to protect innovators like himself. She called it Aaron’s Law.

So finally, what was Swartz’s crime? Well none, he hadn’t committed a crime, he’d simply exerted a high level disobedience which the US government could not get their heads around. He’d basically been caught ‘downloading too many research papers’. It sounds preposterous. He was well known for mass downloading. Already in a previous study he’d correlated that oil companies had been paying law professors to do vanity research exonerating them from environmental damage. Basically uncovering corruption. Years later he was arrested for having downloaded again, this time from the academic journal repository called Jstor. It sounds preposterous. He was facing a 30 year prison sentence.

So our Good Downloader, Swartz. He could have taken a reduced plea of months, reduced from the maximum 30 year prison sentence being given; colleagues also would no doubt have contributed to paying his spiraling legal costs, reaching millions of dollars. He was indicted for prosecution on no less than 11 accounts of the antiquated CFAA (Computer Fraud and Abuse Act). Offered a plea bargain of months rather than years, why did Swartz then say no? We have to look at a comment in the documentary dedicated to his memory called The Internet’s Own Boy.

In a clip from the documentary, a close friend recalls strolling with him one day. In front of the White House, Washington DC, Swartz turned to her declaring ‘I wanna work there one day’. She thinks with a criminal record, even amounting to a few months, that Aaron knew no-one labelled a criminal or with criminal activity could rise to government office. Aaron championed curiosity over intelligence: “Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. A lot of what people call intelligence boils down to curiosity.” Aaron Swartz. The Internet’s Own Boy, The Internet’s Own Punk, The Internet’s Good Downloader. Born 8 November 1986, died 11 January 2013.

That’s it, that’s the end of this podcast. Thank you very much for listening. I hope it interested you and especially made you want to watch the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy. Maybe you already know about Aaron Swartz, and if so I’d like to know if you think he was a rebel? If you’ve any comments, don’t hesitate to write to me and tell me about what you think.

As usual I would like to remind you that if you like this podcast and want to help me, you can leave an evaluation on iTunes (if you listen to podcasts on iTunes) or on the other applications you use. That way, I can reach more and more listeners and help more and more people.

Of course there will be a new podcast soon, and during that we’ll talk about Optimism and the economy, continuing on the topic of rebellion and disobedience. I hope you will be there for the new podcast.

Thank you and see you soon!

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