Technology

Smith: Severe government regulations led to Reddit co-creator’s suicide

It has been more than a week since the death of Aaron Swartz, online visionary and co-creator of Reddit and RSS feeds, yet thousands of Internet users continue to respond with grief and calls to reform the overzealous judicial system that drove him to suicide.

What we’ve witnessed is a tragedy in which a conscientious and enterprising young person dared to change the world, and when he succeeded, the world grew fearful and sought to crush his fighting spirit rather than nurture it.

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 for illegally downloading 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR, a digital library and subscription service to which he gained unauthorized access through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer network. The prosecution sought to charge him with 13 counts of violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and two counts of wire fraud, which, if convicted, would have landed him up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

At 14, Swartz helped build the RSS feed, thus changing the way millions of Internet users receive information. In an online manifesto published in 2008 he wrote, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” He quickly became an advocate for the open-access movement.

He put this belief into action by creating the nonprofit group, Demand Progress, which led the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011. The bill sought greater protection of intellectual property and corresponding copyrights.

Many have been quick to cite Swartz’s depression as a factor in his suicide, but considering how routinely he balanced the weight of the world on his shoulders, it seems only natural that the load would, at times, be too heavy to bear.

This case appears to have been less about punishing Swartz for his apparent misdeeds and more about sending a strong message to the hacker community.

By throwing the book at Swartz, prosecutors were trying to send a threat severe enough for him to deem his future unlivable. Ultimately, breeding this culture of fear will just give rise to further secrecy and protests as “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous continue to enact their own brand of vigilante justice.

Shortly after his death, the group defaced MIT’s website, calling the prosecution “a grotesque miscarriage of justice,” and called for a reform of computer crime and copyright laws in the interest of greater public access.

The federal government is taking on a battle against the hydra of informed dissent these “hacktivists” represent. They may be able to cut off one head, but two will grow back.

There are some supporters who agree with Prosecutor Carmen Ortiz’s sentiment that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” particularly people whose industries and livelihoods are threatened by the open-access movement.

The government and all affected industries are right to fear this new wave of power Swartz chose to publicly represent. Where before it was necessary to pay for an education to receive access to reliable information, now there is no age limit or prerequisite to gaining and applying knowledge.

It’s only rational these institutions become insecure as we approach an uncertain future in a digital age that’s not playing by the same rules. But resisting the change, like the pull of quicksand, will only make it stronger.

Kat Smith is a senior creative advertising major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at kesmit11@syr.edu or by telepathy, if possible. 

  • Bostonway

    Nice spin and excuses. His unethical acts, rigid viewpoints, getting caught, emotional instability, and him acting alone to kill himself …lead to his suicide. Stop pointing at others for the bad things he did.

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