Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, funeral report

This video says about itself:

Jan 15, 2013

The funeral of freedom of information activist Aaron Swartz has been held in Chicago. The twenty-six year old took his own life last Friday after finding himself boxed in by federal prosecutors and facing decades in jail. All this for illegally downloading academic documents. RT talks more about this with Justin Morton, a software engineer who used to work with J-store – an academic database that was also hacked by Swartz.

From the World Socialist Web Site in the USA:

Father of Aaron Swartz indicts US government for son’s suicide

By our reporters

16 January 2013

A funeral for Aaron Swartz was held today at the Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois on Tuesday. The event overflowed with friends, family, collaborators and those who came to pay tribute to the 26-year-old open Internet activist who took his own life late last week.

In remarks delivered at the funeral, Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, issued a stinging rebuke of the US government. “Aaron did not commit suicide,” he said. “The government killed him. Someone who made the world a better place was pushed to his death by the government.”

At the time of his death, Swartz faced federal felony charges for allegedly downloading millions of academic journal articles from subscription service JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with the aim of making these articles freely available. Federal prosecutors were demanding prison time, and Swartz faced the prospect of 35 years in prison if convicted in trial. (See, “Open access activist dead at 26”)

Robert Swartz spoke passionately of his son, who he said grew up as a “beacon of light in a world of darkness.” He contrasted Aaron’s principled actions in service of open information access with the criminality of the financial system that crashed the global economy.

Swartz noted that Aaron did nothing legally wrong and yet was persecuted and bullied by the US government. He contrasted the actions of his son with those who did “sketchy or illegal” things in order to make vast fortunes, mentioning Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates.

From a very early age, Swartz played a major role in developing important internet infrastructure, including RSS feeds. A company he founded, Infogami, merged with Reddit, which has since become one of the most popular link aggregating sites on the Internet. Swartz also founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes Internet freedom.

In a document describing his views, written in 2008, Swartz argued that “the world’s scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.” He added that large corporations are opposed to any attempt to make information broadly available, “and the politicians they have bought off back them.”

Friends and family at the funeral spoke of Aaron’s intellectual curiosity, selflessness, emotional sensitivity and deep concern for improving the world. Various speakers spoke of a “light” within Aaron that drew people to him as he sought to hold the world to a higher standard. They spoke of his ability to challenge others and inspire them to solve complex problems, whether technological or social.

Aaron’s partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, recalled a kind, sensitive and creative person. “Aaron wanted so badly to change the world. He wanted it more than money and more than fame,” she said. “Aaron wanted us to see the world as it is,” she said, “even if it was very painful to do so.”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that she “was never as worried about [Swartz] as the last few days of his life, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the overreaching prosecution.” She said that Swartz was particularly distraught by the need to make continual financial appeals from friends and supporters to fund his defense campaign. “He couldn’t face another day of, ‘Have you done this, have you asked people for money.’ I think he literally rather would have been dead.”

Other speakers and collaborators at the funeral spoke of the seriousness that Aaron gave to every subject he sought to understand. He was “wise beyond his years,” said his friend and collaborator Larry Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School.

Aaron’s defense lawyer, Elliot Peters, recollected a young man who looked vulnerable and needed protection, but always became animated and alive when conversations turned to complex subjects. He was pained that Aaron took his life, as he felt that his case could have been won. Peters spoke out against US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s statement that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Ortiz, the US attorney for the district of Massachusetts and an Obama appointee, along with assistant attorney Stephen Heymann, pushed to get felony convictions against Swartz. In this they were operating at the behest of the Obama administration, which has aggressively pursued opponents of corporate and government control of the Internet.

Even after JSTOR indicated that it had no desire to pursue a case against Swartz, the federal government, with the support of MIT, brought the full weight of the law against him. The excessive charges were accompanied by a refusal to reach any settlement that did not include prison time and a guilty plea on 13 felony counts.

“I said, how about a misdemeanor and probation, and they said it will never happen,” Peters said on Monday. Swartz was adamant about not accepting a felony plea, Peters said, but this meant facing a trial that require enormous financial resources and could ruin his life.

Reporters from the World Socialist Web Site spoke to some of those in attendance at the funeral. Kathleen Geier, a writer for Washington Monthly, said, “Aaron was a representative of the best that is in America. He read more than anyone I knew and studied so many different subjects. He was a representative light to us all.”

Peter Eckersley, Technology Projects Director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a friend and collaborator of Swartz, said, “It was a terrible loss. We both worked together fighting SOPA and PIPA,” referring to proposed legislation to increase government control over the Internet.

With tears in his eyes, Eckersley said, “A big problem in the US is the out-of-control criminal justice system. I’m from Australia and I find it unbelievable here. You have a system that takes people that do not hurt anyone and puts them in prison.”

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the partner of deceased Internet activist Aaron Swartz, issued a statement on March 10 denouncing the Senate testimony of US Attorney General Eric Holder regarding the Justice Department’s prosecution of Swartz. She also accused the US attorney’s office in Massachusetts of multiple acts of prosecutorial misconduct in its handling of the case: here.

By Cavan Sieczkowski in the USA:

After the tragic suicide of Reddit co-founder and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, hacktivist group Anonymous vowed to derail picketing efforts by the hate-mongering members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who threatened to picket Swartz’s funeral on Tuesday. When members of Anonymous and supporters showed up to block the WBC’s picket line, the quasi-religious group was nowhere to be seen.

Westboro Baptist Church on Sunday announced plans to protest Swarz’s open funeral in a press release titled “GOD H8S Cyber Criminal THUGS.”

The Internet’s Own Boy (2014, Filmbuff/Participant Media), directed and produced by Brian Knappenberger, is a documentary film about Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), the open Internet activist and web technology prodigy who took his own life after being hounded by a vindictive criminal lawsuit orchestrated by the US federal government. The film was recently presented at the American Film Institute’s AFI Docs film festival in the Washington, DC suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. The film was released nationwide June 27. It is available for free viewing here. Read more here.

JEFF SAWTELL recommends a documentary on the fate of internet ‘pirate’ Aaron Swartz: here.

The Obama administration formally rejected on Wednesday a pair of petitions to fire the prosecutors whose vindictive pursuit of Internet pioneer and activist Aaron Swartz drove him to suicide in 2013: here.

9 thoughts on “Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, funeral report

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  4. I knew Aaron Swartz. Aaron was an internet leader and free-speech advocate who helped organize the worldwide movement to keep the internet free from censorship and corporate control. Now more than ever, we should listen to his story and what he fought for. Aaron committed suicide at the young age of 26 after downloading JSTOR articles without JSTOR’s permission. He was unfairly facing many years in prison. As we approach the five-year anniversary of his death, I hope you read my remarks at his memorial service, and learn a bit more about the man who “rocked the boat.” Here is what I said:

    CONGRESSMAN GRAYSON: Aaron worked in my office as an intern. He had a quality that I found unnerving. He could come up with better things for him to do than I could come up with for him to do. Time and time again, I would give him something to do, and he’d say, “Is it okay if I also work on this other thing?” And “this other thing” turned out to be much more important than anything that I could come up with.

    I learned to live with that. I learned to live with that shortcoming, which I took to be a shortcoming of my own, not one of his.

    The other unnerving quality that I found in him was the fact that when he would conjure these assignments, they actually came to fruition — an unusual phenomenon here on Capitol Hill. He’d give himself something to do, I would recognize that it was very worthwhile, I let him do it, and it got done! He was a remarkable human being.

    Another thing that I found unnerving — but also very endearing — about Aaron was that Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Now, we all hear from a very, very young age, “Don’t rock the boat.” I would venture to say that of the 2000 languages spoken on this planet, probably every single one of them has an idiom in that language for that term: “Don’t rock the boat.” And yet Aaron wanted to rock the boat. Not just for the sake of boat-rocking, but for the sake of improving the lives of ordinary people. And that’s a beautiful, a wonderful quality.

    We’re talking about somebody here who helped to create Reddit, an important world-wide service, at the age of nineteen. Honestly, somebody who probably could have spent the rest of his life in bed, ordering pizzas, and left it at that. And yet he didn’t. He continued to strive to do good — good as he saw it. And that’s a rare quality in people. Many of us, we just have to do our best to get through the day. That’s the way it is. Many of us struggle to do just that. Very few of us actually can think big thoughts, and make them happen. But Aaron was one of those rare people.

    And he was willing to take the heat for rocking the boat. Now, you know, sometimes when you rock the boat, the boat tries to rock you. That is exactly what he encountered, right up until the end.

    And it’s a sad thing, that that’s the price you have to pay. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our property. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our freedom. For some of us who rock the boat, we end up losing our families. And in Aaron’s case, his life.

    And yet, he was willing to face the facts, and to let that happen. To keep striving, to keep struggling, to keep trying to shake things up.

    Aaron’s life reminded me about a different life that came to the same end. It’s the life of Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician. He lived in England, and was born one hundred years ago. Alan Turing was the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century. He not only invented the Turing Machine, which is the basis for all modern computing, but Alan Turing also broke the Nazi codes during World War II, and allowed the English and the Americans to defeat the Nazis.

    You would think that someone like that would be cherished. Someone like that who, if he had managed to have a full life, might have won one, or two, or even three, Nobel Prizes. But in fact he was vilified, because he was a homosexual, which, at that point in England, in those days, was illegal. And I’m sure that at that point in England, in those days, there were people who said, “Well, the law is the law. And if you disobey the law, then you should go to prison.” Because of that, because his boyfriend turned him in, Alan Turing was convicted of perversity, and sentenced to prison.

    Given the choice between spending hard time — years and years of his life — instead of doing the mathematics that he loved, or alternatively, to accept estrogen injections, well, Turing took the estrogen injection choice. And that broke not only his body, but his mind. He found that he could not do the thing he loved the most, mathematics, any longer. So after two years of this, Alan Turing committed suicide.

    And who lost, out of that? Well, Alan Turing lost. But so did all of we. We lost as well. All of us who would have benefitted from that first, and second, and the third Nobel Prizes that Alan Turing had in him. And that Aaron Swartz had in him.

    We’re the ones who lose.

    If we let our prejudices, our desires to restrain those with creativity — if we let that lead us to the point where that creativity is restrained, then going back all the way to the time of Socrates, what we engage in is human sacrifice. We sacrifice their lives, out of the misguided sense that we need to protect ourselves from them, when in fact it’s the opposite.

    Our lives have meaning, our lives have greater meaning, from the things that they create. So we’re here today to remember Aaron — and also to try to learn from the experience. To understand that prosecution should not be persecution.

    This morning I reached into the closet, randomly took out this tie [showing necktie], and wore it. And I have a sense that sometimes, things are connected in ways that are not exactly obvious. It happens that this tie is a painting of “Starry Night” by Vincent Van Gogh, someone else whose life ended all too soon.

    In a Don McLean song about Vincent Van Gogh, it ends this way: “They would not listen. They’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”

    It’s time to listen.


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