No matter what your personal view on his bent of activism, the suicide of Aaron Swartz is a tragic event. At 26, Swartz was a digital pioneer who left a big mark on the global web: creator of the RSS feed, age 14; the launch of a startup software company, which merged with Reddit, age 19; digitally orchestrating a one-million-person protest against SOPA and PIPA which killed the bills in the U.S. Congress, last year.
Swartz is a digital folk hero. The young activist was facing criminal charges levied by the Massachusetts prosecutors which could have landed him in jail for 35 years. In 2011, on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Swartz used his hacking skills to download millions of articles from JSTOR — an online archive of academic research to which Schwartz had legal access — allegedly with the intention of making them freely available online. JSTOR dropped its civil suit against Swartz last year (here’s a somber statement on Swartz’s death from JSTOR), but federal prosecutors in Massachusetts were following through with 13 charges of data theft, an act his family claims led to his suicide. Swartz also suffered from depression.
Due in no small part to the digital fingerprints Swartz left around the world, you may be interested to read some of the views on his death from outside of the U.S. The global press is alight, and here are a few of our top picks.
Creation of a martyr?
It seems clear to me that Swartz was to be made an example of in the war against copyright infringers. You don’t need to be one of the internet’s bright young things to understand why he might have chosen to press the eject button….Swartz represented one of the geekworld ideals: a precocious programmer who became wealthy from an internet start-up and who fought for information freedom. In that fight, he chose his targets wisely and, I think, understood the risks….If there aren’t already T-shirts on sale with Swartz’s image as Che Guevara, black beret with red Creative Commons CC logo replacing the socialist star, just close your eyes and count to 10.
MIT under the microscope
Swartz’s untimely death is prompting MIT officials to conduct an internal probe, as Ireland’s Independent reports. Critics say MIT was unnecessarily aggressive in holding Swartz liable for the big hack he conducted on the school’s campus:
A petition signed by 12,000 people so far has been sent to the White House demanding the sacking of the prosecutor who was in charge of the Swartz case, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz….Some have suggested that while JSTOR asked prosecutors to drop the case, the authorities at MIT took the opposite view. MIT’s actions gave Ms Ortiz “the excuse [she] needed to continue [her] war against the ‘criminal’ who we who loved him knew as Aaron”, Professor [Larry Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University] added….The MIT investigation into these and other claims has been ordered by the university’s president, Rafael Reif….Activists who considered Mr Swartz their pied piper took early revenge on MIT by hacking into its website and crashing it over the weekend. But Professor Abelson, [MIT’s] chosen investigator, is also a fighter for intellectual freedom on the web. Maybe MIT has finally done something supporters of Aaron Swartz can agree with.
Of course, there had to be a hashtag
India’s Hindu reports on the social media campaign conducted around the world by academics who posted PDFs of their copyrighted work to the Internet. Many called attention to their work by tweeting with the hashtag #PDFTribute:
All the more relevant in the context of a developing country like India, many complained that outside university networks [make] it . . . impossible to access academic works. Though few Indian professors were seen participating, the Indian academic journal, Economic and Political Weekly, showed its solidarity to the free and open access movement by releasing at least eight academic papers that were otherwise behind its pay wall.
Speaking to The Hindu , Subhash Rai, EPW’s senior web editor, said the open access movement in India never really took off. Most academic content is behind pay walls, and in fact many journals are also heading towards a system where you have to make separate payments for access to single articles. This, he pointed out, makes it impossible for even students to access content….“There’s definitely a need to focus on these issues, particularly in the context of a developing country like India.”
Aaron Swartz and James Dean
The co-founder of the French participatory news site Rue89, Pierre Haski, sees parallels between Swartz and another “fragile” American hero who died young after “embodying the adolescent in rebellion against all conservatisms, rejected by the establishment” – actor James Dean.
One tries to imagine what Swartz would have contributed to the future history of the Web and of the world. At a moment where America is tearing itself apart over guns, the man who couldn’t accept that scientific papers be behind a paywall chose to take his leave. And one asks oneself, where are the Aaron Swartzes of France and if our society, today, is capable of recognizing them and letting them have their say.