Aaron Swartz’s Quest to Keep Corporations From Privatizing the Internet

The late Aaron Swartz was an inveterate advocate for an internet that belonged to the public commons, as seen in this photo when he spoke out against the corporate-sponsored SOPA legislation. (Photo: Daniel Sieradski)The late Aaron Swartz was an inveterate advocate for an internet that belonged to the public commons, as seen in this photo when he spoke out against the corporate-sponsored SOPA legislation. (Photo: Daniel Sieradski)

Aaron Swartz was an outspoken computer genius with a strong streak for justice until the US government hounded him to his death. Bittersweet and “impossibly brilliant,” The Boy Who Could Change the World collects more than a decade of Swartz’s essays on topics from intellectual property and politics to media and pop culture. Order your copy of the book today by making a donation to Truthout!

The following is an interview with Mako Hill, one of the editors of the writings of the late Aaron Swartz. Hill was also Swartz’s colleague and friend.

Mark Karlin: How long did you know Aaron Swartz and what did you learn from him as a friend and as a colleague?

Mako Hill: I met Aaron in 2005 when we both moved to Boston. Aaron moved to start a company as part of the first class of the startup incubator Y Combinator. I moved to begin graduate school. Seth Schoen, who coedited the first section of the book with me, introduced Aaron and I and we became close friends.

I learned an enormous amount from Aaron over the years. If I had to pick one thing, it would probably be something I talked about in remarks I made at a memorial after his death. Aaron had this rare ability to not just think or work within the system, but to think and work with the system. He didn’t just play by the rules. He played with the rules. I’d like to think that I’m a little better at doing this because of the time we spent together.

The title of this marvelous collection of Aaron Swartz’s from The New Press is The Boy Who Could Change the World. Aaron’s youth appears as such a singular narrative in his impact. At what age did he start as both an activist and information technology innovator? He was like a rocket. Did he have friends in Highland Park, Illinois, that were able to understand his genius?

Aaron’s work as an activist and technologist was in full swing as he entered his teens. Before he was 15, he had started an award-winning predecessor to Wikipedia that had been covered by USA Today, had engaged deeply with the design and development of important and widely used pieces of web infrastructure, and was active in several activist communities around technology and information sharing.

I met Aaron when he was 18, so I did not know him when he was a child. From our discussions, it was clear that Aaron had felt more comfortable interacting with adults on the internet than he did with other kids in Highland Park. Growing up, I think Aaron was closest to his family members and to adults he had met and worked with online.

Although Aaron was certainly a precocious child, the prominent role that age plays in his narrative – and even the title of the book – is something I have mixed feelings about. Although Aaron’s youth can make it easier to understand some of his mistakes and more reckless behavior, it also makes it easier to dismiss some of his more challenging arguments and actions, which were often quite carefully considered.

Growing older can be stressful for prodigies and wunderkind whose reputation is tied closely to their age. I know, based on many conversations we had, that this was very difficult for Aaron. Although there’s no question that Aaron was far, far too young to die, he was never a child during the seven and a half years I knew him. His ideas were never childish.

This is an unusual book in that Aaron’s writings are split up into five sections. You coedit and write an introduction with Seth Schoen on a topic called “free culture.” How was Aaron’s life in large part characterized by his ongoing and uncompromising commitment to ownership of internet content by the public commons?

Aaron’s earliest work on computers and technology was framed and influenced by the free software movement. The goal of the free software movement is to politicize the issue of who gets to decide what technology can and cannot do. The free software answer to that issue, which Aaron supported deeply, is that technology should be placed in a commons where every user can study it, change it and collaborate with others to improve it.

“Although Aaron’s interests were broad, understanding his thoughts about free culture is a key to understanding Aaron.”

Aaron’s work in free culture was a natural broadening of those thoughts about software to other forms of knowledge. After all, if free software can bring us Linux – which now runs on most servers and phones – think of what free culture might do for things like encyclopedias? Aaron asked exactly that question in 2000 and Wikipedia, started in 2001, has demonstrated the answer very clearly. Aaron was constantly thinking about what other forms of proprietary knowledge might be replaced with commons.

This shift – from free software to what Aaron and others called “free culture” – was part of a larger movement that was picking up steam around 2000 and in which Aaron was an important leader. Outside technology, I think free culture is probably the issue that Aaron devoted most of his writing and thinking to.

For any given problem, Aaron was always interested in identifying a more fundamental problem or a more impactful action that could be taken. Aaron’s work on broader political issues was another frame-broadening move as he tried to think bigger than just free culture. Although Aaron’s interests were broad – something that his writing in the book makes very clear – I think that understanding his thoughts about free culture is a key to understanding Aaron.

Is it fair to say that Aaron’s perspective on open access to documents and opposition to copyright, in part, stems from a view that corporations own and restrict too much of the public commons in general?

Absolutely. The music that plays an important role in our emotional lives, scientific knowledge about how the world works, the software we use to communicate with each other – all of these and more are locked up and controlled by for-profit corporations. This fact struck Aaron as both ridiculous and unacceptable. Aaron was committed to building workable alternative models and finding ways to put pressure on the “old system” in new and creative ways.

Let’s return to Aaron’s prodigious computer technology and software skills. Was he the right young person at the right time who understood that digitalized information over the net is fast becoming the vehicle for global corporate domination?

Aaron was involved in the net early enough to see it shift from being a more open system into something that was increasingly closed, corporate and owned. Of course, Aaron wasn’t alone in this observation or in his desire to fight for a better arrangement. Aaron was a prodigious technologist but this is not what made him unique, in my opinion. Aaron’s unbelievable creativity and an uncompromising drive was what set him apart from others.

Can you explain about his final face-off with the US Department of Justice that led to his death? What was he fighting for? Why was the Department of Justice in Massachusetts so unrelentingly punitive in pursuing him?

Answering this question is difficult. Aaron was in trouble for downloading large numbers of academic articles. Understanding what he was fighting for in the case, at some level, boils down to understanding his motivation. Unfortunately, Aaron’s motivation was one of the open questions and key issues in the Justice Department’s case against him. It was something that he never spoke publicly about it.

In the section of the book I helped edit and introduce, we include a document called the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” which is a beautifully written document that decries the way that the world’s scientific heritage is locked up behind corporate paywalls so that it is inaccessible to most of the world’s population. Among many other things, the essay suggests that people should download journal articles and put them online as one way to liberate scientific knowledge. The government planned to use the document as evidence of Aaron’s motivation in their case against him.

Although the document was originally posted on Aaron’s blog and he was most likely an author, there were many open questions about the document’s co-authorship and whether, and to what degree, it reflected his motivation at the time he downloaded the articles from JSTOR. After all, Aaron had previously engaged in mass downloading of academic articles for academic research he had published.

I’m not sure why the Justice Department was so unrelenting and merciless in their prosecution of Aaron. Aaron’s previous work to systematically release public domain documents from PACER (a system the US government uses to charge enormous fees for access to public legal information) made the front page of The New York Times and attracted attention from the FBI. Lingering anger over that episode may have had something to do with the government’s approach to his case.

That said, I was struck by some comments by George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr who analyzed Aaron’s case and suggested that the Justice Department’s behavior may not have been particularly out of the ordinary. If Kerr is right, it could be that the kind of callous bullying that Aaron was subjected to is the normal mode of operation in the US attorney’s office. The difference, of course, is that Aaron tried to stand up and fight. That’s a depressing thought.

What was Aaron’s role in successfully defeating, for the time being anyway (these bills tend to morph), the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)?

Aaron helped create an organization called Demand Progress. That organization’s first major activity was organizing opposition to SOPA. Obviously, successfully blocking a law like SOPA that started with nearly universal support in Congress involves many people and organizations but Aaron played an important role early on. In the book, we included a transcript of a talk that Aaron gave called “How We Stopped SOPA” and I think it is wonderful and inspiring. A video of his talk is also online. I think the talk is also a great example of how issues of free culture and knowledge commons remained at the core of Aaron’s work even as he took on “bigger” political issues.

The last section of the book is called “Unschool.” Aaron is roundly and devastatingly condemning of the US primary and high school systems. Swartz concludes: “Too often, people think of schools as systems of building good people. Perhaps it’s time to think of them as places to let people be good.” How do you interpret that observation?

Aaron had a deep commitment to learning but had much more conflicted feelings about education and schools. Aaron felt that schools were largely about molding and shaping people to know certain things and to think and behave in certain ways. As well intentioned as educators usually are, Aaron saw the basic approach of schools as doing unacceptable violence to the creativity and goodness in people. That had been Aaron’s personal experience with school.

Here is a way to put this thought in terms of the kinds of fights over knowledge ownership at the center of much of Aaron’s work:

If a child hears a song that they love, they will want to share it with others. Of course, because the copyright to any piece of music lies with its creator, sharing a song with a friend will often constitute a copyright violation. The way our society solves this problem is to try to teach kids about the law and to explain to them that sharing music without permission and payment is illegal and wrong. Aaron felt that the problem was with the law, not the child, and that education was aggravating the problem. He felt that we should figure out ways to support the production and distribution of music in ways that don’t attempt to educate children out of acting in ways, that went against the desire to share which Aaron felt – and I think most of us would agree – are examples of basic human goodness. He felt that building a better world around this goodness was not only possible, but that it reflected a moral imperative.

I continue to miss Aaron enormously but I hope that this publication of his writing helps inspire others to act, and to think, a little bit more like he did.