Money Trail: Swartz a pivotal figure in Lessig’s activism

Last modified: 7/14/2015 7:42:30 PM
Last year, Jeanne Spellman came to the first day of the N.H. Rebellion with her friend simply to honor Aaron Swartz.

When she set out for the 10-day trip between Dixville Notch and Concord this year, she thought it was different this time. It was to be part of the rebellion. But quickly she realized Swartz was still fresh in her mind.

“As I was walking Sunday morning, it really hit me hard that I was walking because I’m angry that my government could have driven the most brilliant man of this generation to death,” she said.

The event’s founder, Lawrence Lessig, said the rebellion and much of his work to reform campaign finance laws would never have existed without Swartz, a precocious and prolific computer programmer and political activist who committed suicide at 26 years old two years ago Sunday.

Spellman, a web accesibility engineer for the World Wide Web Consortium, first met Swartz online. He was contributing work in 2001 that resulted in the creation of the web syndication specification RSS, which allowed people to track updates to blogs and news outlets. He was a very valuable contributor, and when he asked to attend the W3C’s next face-to-face meetup, the group was excited to have him.

But first, he had one question: “I’m only 14. Do I have to bring a parent?”

“No one knew until he said that,” Spellman said.

After RSS, Swartz went on as a teenager to co-found Reddit and build the architecture for Creative Commons, Lessig’s project to allow creators of intellectual property to relax copyright laws on their own work.

As he got older, he worked on several projects to allow open access to information, including a script he wrote that downloaded 20 million pages of public federal court files and drew the attention of the FBI.

In late 2010 and early 2011, he ran a similar program to download academic journal articles he had access to through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s open campus. His IP address was blocked and he went to connect directly to the network, through an open door, and continued downloading. For that, he eventually was charged with felony violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that amounted to a maximum criminal penalty of 35 years imprisonment and a $1 million fine. Swartz’s defense attorney said the prosecutors at the Boston U.S. Attorney’s office wanted to make an example of Swartz and there were no victims of his actions.

During the course of his prosecution, Swartz became a critical figure in the movement to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act. Hundreds of millions of people visited Wikipedia and Reddit on a day when both sites were blacked out to raise awareness about SOPA, and “the phones melted on Capitol Hill,” Lessig said.

“When that happened, Congress kind of woke up,” Lessig said. “There were people outside the beltway and they cared about something. It was amazing to watch the flip from support to opposition.”

Swartz was offered a plea deal to serve six months in prison if he would plead guilty to 13 federal crimes. He would be labeled a felon and his increasing potential for a political career would take a hit. He rejected the deal in favor of a trial, but later committed suicide in his apartment Jan. 11, 2013.

Lessig said the nature of Swartz’s death “reinforces the sense of the craziness of the government, the out of touchness of the government, it puts a real passion to it.”

Lessig said Swartz began pivoting the direction of his work after a conversation eight years ago at a computer conference in Berlin.

“He was kind of pressing me with the question, ‘Why do I think I’m ever going to make any progress on what I’m doing (in internet and copyright policy) as long as there’s this corrupting influence of money in politics?’ ” he said.

Lessig said he responded that it’s not his field, but when Swartz pressed him further, “I had this moment of recognizing I didn’t have an excuse.”

“I had tenure. I had done the work I expected I would do in the copyright and internet space. I thought that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life tinkering with subtle new arguments for fair use . . . so I decided he was right and I could afford it and so I started getting an organization together,” he said.

The N.H. Rebellion as a group watched The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary about Swartz, yesterday.

Emotionally, Lessig said, “I’ve only ever seen this film twice – both times with you guys – and I never quite know how to react to it.”



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)




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