Aaron Swartz: A life remembered, a legacy debated

Is Aaron Swartz a martyr, crook, or coward? Depends on whom you ask

Last Monday's post about the tragic suicide of Aaron Swartz inspired a huge response from the residents of Cringeville, both in the comments and on email. I wanted to share some of the latter here.

First, though, an aside: Yesterday the Westboro Baptist Church announced it had canceled its plans to stage a protest at Swartz's funeral, which meant that Anonymous did not have to follow through with its plan to form a human shield around the mourners to protect them from those a******s. Thank goodness for small favors. The event was tragic enough without turning the funeral into a circus.

[ Also on InfoWorld: In memory of Aaron Swartz: Stealing is not stealing | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. | Cut straight to the key news for technology development and IT management with our once-a-day summary of the top tech news. Subscribe to the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

But the news of this story got me to thinking once again about how much the WBC ironically resembles 4chan, from which the Anonymous movement seems to have sprung. Both groups seem utterly determined to be as offensive to as many human beings as humanly possible. The biggest difference to me is that 4chan's offensiveness has been almost entirely virtual (and often laced with humor), while the church chooses to do its trolling in three dimensions (usually laced with hate). The WBC's "protests" have been so over the top, that for a long time I have suspected the founders of being a version of the Merry Pranksters, conducting an experiment to measure just how depraved people can be if they set their minds to it.

I digress. In my post I focused on how our government has demonized crimes involving technology, many of them better described as acts of protest than theft. I can see a clear line linking back from prosecuting Swartz's "crime" (downloading more documents than he was legally allowed to from a trove of academic papers, with the intent of distributing them free online) to the actions of the RIAA and MPAA in suing file sharers for tens of thousands of dollars. It's the content cartel acting like a bully yet again, with the help of our government.

That post made some readers believe I condone piracy of intellectual property. That's not the case. Swapping files to avoid paying for stuff is cheap and low rent. What I object to are the tactics of the content cartel, the overinflated claims of damage, and the oversized penalties allowed under the law. If the recording industry is dying, I believe the wounds have been largely self-inflicted; file swapping is a largely a response to a pattern of disregard by the music industry over the years.

Swartz's motive for downloading the files from JSTOR and distributing them via BitTorrent, however, seems more benign: the notion that academic research should be part of the public commons, not locked behind a paywall. Even then, some readers vehemently disagreed. For example, reader T. B. writes:

There's a problem with the assumption that hacktivists have everyone's best interest at heart. There is NO WAY to have a society where EVERYONE gets to decide what is best and then act on it. That's called ANARCHY and if we had anarchy, I think you'd be complaining about that even more. I personally agree that information should be free, but your right to swing your fist doesn't stop three inches past my nose. Hacktivists will get a lot more respect from me when they start realizing that other people have rights too, and my rights are not subordinate to the hacktivist's activism.

I don't assume hacktivists have everyone's best interests at heart, but I don't believe they should be punished more severely than people who've committed far more serious crimes of a commercial nature. The example I used in my last post was a major international bank guilty of money laundering that walked away with a large fine; there are many others.

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