The Untimely Death of Aaron Swartz and the Neutrality of Hackers

Over the weekend, a man of great talent, great skill, and great misunderstanding gave up his life. Aaron Swartz, known for his media commentary, his co-founding of RSS, Infogami and Reddit, as well as his leadership in the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement, hanged himself at the age of 26.

Swartz was well known in the hacker community as a man out to free information: he wanted to make the sharing of information as easy as possible. In late 2010/2011, Swartz downloaded over 4 million articles files from JSTOR, a subscription-based online digital library used by thousands of schools, with the intent of distributing them for free. In July 2011, Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, charged Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture, which could have resulted in up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. At the time of his death, those penalties were still a distinct possibility.

The response to Swartz’s death has been monumental; tech communities and hackers are all responding to this man’s death, and its tragic nature. What is especially interesting about this legal case, and what creates a new side to the story, is that people believe Swartz was being mistreated by the government.

Swartz worked to make information and truth freely available to all. However, this work was read as being illegal and the actions of a hacker. Technosociologist Danah Boyd has found much frustration in the treatment of her friend and colleague:

What made me so overwhelmingly angry yesterday was the same thing that has been boiling in my gut for the last two years. When the federal government went after him — and MIT sheepishly played along — they weren’t treating him as a person who may or may not have done something stupid. He was an example….In recent years, hackers have challenged the status quo and called into question the legitimacy of countless political actions. Their means may have been questionable, but their intentions have been valiant. The whole point of a functioning democracy is to always question the uses and abuses of power in order to prevent tyranny from emerging. Over the last few years, we’ve seen hackers demonized as anti-democratic even though so many of them see themselves as contemporary freedom fighters. And those in power used Aaron, reframing his information liberation project as a story of vicious hackers whose terroristic acts are meant to destroy democracy.

If this statement is true, then our modern stereotype of a hacker is highly inaccurate. Whenever a person says “hacker”, I think of characters like Neo from The Matrix (who lived in a dark corner of the city with prostitutes and gang members) or Rat from The Core (a little kid with a big nose with no social skills). Yet hackers are more than that. A recent Wired feature explored the development of the “hacktivist” group Anonymous, a group that started in one of the most trivial manners and yet has grown into an incredibly powerful political/internet groups.

These individuals are standing up as heroes, as people who can (and often do) create good in the world. One must ask the question, then, “What is the value of hacking?” Is it against the law? The legal system defines “hacking” as that of accessing someone’s computer or digital system without representative authorization. (For example, if I got on your Facebook account without your permission, I would be hacking your account.)  So, hacking, even when committed in the name of freeing information is wrong, right?

I’m a little fuzzy on this question. As Paul said, we are to submit to the government in all matters, unless they go against God’s direct moral commands. But is stealing information actually stealing? Why is the access to computers without personal permission illegal? Can one ethically “hack”?

Swartz’s death also raises a number of particular questions as well. Was Swartz’s legal case legitimate?  Did Swartz actually perform illegal acts?  Did the government directly cause Swartz’s death?

There’s a lot of moral and philosophical ground to explore here, ground which isn’t answered with just one Bible verse, or one man’s thoughts. Hopefully, we can explore these questions both here, and in our communities of believers. But the one thing I’ve picked up from the Swartz affair is this: The Internet is an open place which offers a constant stream of nuanced and complicated ethical problems that all must engage with.

Photo by Sage Ross.

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  • dwight

    seems to me that “subscription” is the key. Why did Swartz think he unilaterially had the right to “free” information that belonged to others and was available by subscription????? I agree that our notions of knowledge/information ownership/rights is challenged by the internet is being seriously challenged, but the notion that everything is free and i have unrestricted access to it is bogus.

    jury is still out, though. did the govt behave inappropriately? don’t know. how about asking those who “owned” the information he set free????

  • I can’t comment on Swartz’ actions beyond saying that there’s a very real chance that he creating an act of civil disobedience–I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about whether or not the punishment in that case was appropriate.

    But I will say that the label “hacker” is much maligned in the wider public sphere–people who refer to themselves as hackers don’t see it as pejorative in any sense. A true hacker is one who works on an interesting project, not someone who does something illegal or unethical. Hacking is what you do in your spare time when you’ve got an interesting problem to solve and are working hard to get it solved.

    That the words for smart, creative problem-solvers and their actions have someone been conflated with the electronic equivalent of breaking and entering is a unfortunate consequence of the romantic notion of the 21st century’s version of the gentleman thief myth.

  • Dwight, I can’t say anything about what was downloaded. However, there is a question of whether that information needs to be free.

    And Jake, I guess I understand that misunderstanding, but then there’s also this question of those who also call themselves hackers, those who manipulate data to devious ends (like the group Anonymous, who does both good and evil with their digital powers). So, there likely needs to be a semantical change in order to clarify these details.

  • Emmanuel Goldsten

    Guttenberg was the Aaron Swartz of his day. Had the Bible not been pirated often enough and spread to the masses, had this information not been “stolen” from the higher powers and its copyright ignored, me and you might not be reading it today.