Today is Internet Freedom Day, held in the memory of a man most people never knew lived – until now.
I confess I didn’t know Aaron Swartz’s name, either, though, like millions, I knew the fruits of his work. Mr. Swartz was a prodigy. As a teenager, he became one of the authors of RSS, a tool that people used to follow blogs, that paved the way for the leviathan social networks that would follow. He was instrumental in the creation of Reddit, a community website that would drive the culture of the English-speaking Internet. He was a rabble-rouser who sparked a movement that headed off U.S. legislation that could have crippled the Internet, effectively wiping sites accused of copyright violations off the Web. He was, in the words of his friend Cory Doctorow, a “full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.”
And now, he’s a martyr. Mr. Swartz committed suicide on Jan. 11. He had publicly written about his struggles with depression, but he was also in the midst of a prosecution by the U.S. government for having pilfered digital academic papers in an act of what he felt was civil disobedience. His death – and moreover, the uproar in its wake – is a reminder that even though the Internet has become a land of gated media and cheap, easy payments, the consensus on access to information has not been settled just yet.
Mr. Swartz was not a “free-media” advocate in the Napster sense of the term. He was more concerned with freeing information itself, and with the intersections of power, money and entrenched interests that locked information away. He practiced this conviction by “liberating” volumes of U.S. case law material and academic articles from databases.
“Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South?” he wrote in a 2008 manifesto. “It's outrageous and unacceptable.”
He got off the hook for earlier transgressions, but when he snuck onto the MIT campus a year ago and copied millions of articles onto hard drives, his luck (and friends in high places) ran out and the federal government threw the book at him. After he rejected a plea deal that would have sentenced him to six months, they threatened up to 35 years of jail time. His family has publicly blamed his death on “prosecutorial overreach.”
The curious thing about Mr. Swartz, and the mythos that’s fast gathering around him, is that he was a cowboy on a frontier that’s fast being civilized. The Wild West days of the Internet are receding. The years when massive media companies could be blindsided by Napster, or when national laws designed to regulate tape decks could be baffled by torrents of data, have come and gone. Even Canada, after umpteen tries, has updated its copyright law, and already movie studios eager to sue are demanding that Internet providers fork over customer names. It’s hardly even news anymore.
It’s not simply enforcement. We got comfortable. The cacophony of independent blogs has given way to a handful of easy-to-use leviathans: Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, each presiding over hundreds of millions of voices with a Terms of Service that bears the gravity of a national constitution. Apps come through vetted App Stores, our music and movies through iTunes and YouTube, which these days will make you watch an ad for dish soap before letting you watch the cats. Lately, it’s become quite possible to live a very pleasant and respectable digital existence by spending just a few shekels. (For those who arrived on the Internet at a certain moment, the timing has all worked out very neatly: Napster in our starving years; Netflix now that we can pay.)
But comfort is beguiling. It gives the sense that the consensus is set, that the law has congealed, and that we’ve come as far as we need to. It makes it easy to write off his ideals as “youthful rubbish,” as one prominent columnist wrote this week. They’re not. Just as copyright is and always will be a balancing act between those who produce information and those who consume it, the Internet will always exist in tension between those who need to safeguard their investments by locking it down, and those who want to explore its potential by keeping it open – and occasionally playing havoc with established interests.
For hundreds of millions, the Internet might just be Facebook. Mr. Swartz’s life is a reminder that even in these ready-to-serve times, this isn’t the case. The fight over the Internet’s nature will last as long as the network itself. It needs its corporate lawyers, yes. But it also needs its cowboys.