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TRNN Replay: Remembering Aaron Swartz who died three years ago this week. Two colleagues and friends of Aaron Swartz talk about his activism and vision of technology in the service of a more democratic and just society

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

Aaron Swartz was a brilliant 26-year-old software developer who most recently worked at a company called Thoughtworks, a global software developer, but before that, was well known as a developer of Reddit, the inventor of RSS, and one of the designers of Creative Commons. Well, Aaron committed suicide on Friday, January 11. At the time of his death, Aaron Swartz was under indictment for using MIT access to log into JSTOR, a database of scholarly articles, and downloading those articles with the intent to make them public. If Swartz had been convicted of these charges, he faced more than 30 years in prison.

Now joining us to talk about Aaron the man and the significance of this case: first of all, Roy Singham. He’s the founder and chairman of Thoughtworks Inc., the company that Aaron most recently worked for. And Brian Guthrie. Brian was a coworker with Aaron, and he’s also a software developer and internet activist.

Thank you both for joining us.


JAY: So, Roy, first of all, talk quickly about the basic case, but really what was at stake. I mean, the question I suppose everybody’s asking is: why was the prosecutor going after Aaron with such fervor? Nothing actually was ever released. He took these documents perhaps with the intention of making them public, but he never did. But yet they were making a major case out of this.

ROY SINGHAM, FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN, THOUGHTWORKS: Yeah, no, no. The family issued a very, I think, poignant statement about this when they were defining this as prosecutorial overreach, and, unfortunately, in this case, also the complicity of MIT in letting this happen. I mean, understanding that these documents were downloaded, he had the right to access them, they were sitting on a server, nobody else received them, there was no victim in this alleged crime, none, why would you take—because you would have to allege intent to distribute.

By the way, these documents are academic documents. These are not, you know, corporate secrets, they’re not state secrets. These are often—most of these documents were created over, you know, centuries of human knowledge. And so the idea that there was an economic benefit to be gained is not true. So there was no economic motivation. There was no damage done to any of the institutions. JSTOR, which was the actual company from—organization from which the documents were downloaded, was quite frankly aghast at the end that this would—’cause they would have said, we’d settle, we don’t believe in any charges.

So here you have a government going after somebody where there are no damages and no victim, and at the same time the people who might have been the victim have said, please stop. Very unusual.

JAY: So, clearly the objective has to be to send a message that anyone that has the kind of specialized know-how or talent that Aaron had, you stay away from privately owned or state-owned documents, period. This has to be about, you know, making—sending the message to this community.

SINGHAM: Yeah. I mean, again, you know, different people have different views on this. Glen Greenwald, in his, I think, brilliant piece in The Guardian, looks at all the potential theories of why would this overreach have occurred. You know, was it because, you know, they wanted to make him a sample case? Was it because he had made some powerful enemies in the United States?

As you probably know, he was the guy who led or certainly that he helped the movement against the defeat of the piracy act. You know, so he led that. He had already entangled with the government in showing then that the things [incompr.] that they had already produced for the courts ought to be free. He downloaded them. He had embarrassed them in this way. So he clearly had already reached the attention point of the FBI and the government. So we know that he was a target.

What this individual prosecutor did, however, in Boston, in addition to whatever political issues are undoubtedly underlying his case—this was a vindictive, mean office of—and remember, this is the federal prosecutor’s office. It is the—you know, this was not a state issue. The state prosecutors in Massachusetts was not going after him. This was a federal prosecutor, you know, of Massachusetts, Carmin Ortiz. And the particular prosecutor, they were vicious over a two-year period in attempting to drive this young, beautiful boy, man, into jail.

So, now, what is the political case versus what were the individual motives of these two prosecutors at a minimum? And we called for this in our press statement today [incompr.] Today I’m speaking as an individual to you. But in our press statement, this idea that, you know, you can have prosecutors who use the plea bargaining system to drive people into admission of guilt [incompr.] defend this stuff is millions of dollars, bankruptcy, 35 years in prison. This is terrifying to any person.

And so a number of issues have to be called into play, in our opinion, and certainly in my opinion and Brian’s opinion, who also worked closely, you know, with Aaron. If this is allowed unchallenged, we will lose the next generation of Aarons, the next generation of the most important intellectual leaders of the planet. That’s what’s at stake. I have some personal views, which I would agree, you know, in terms of what was the underlying political motive. But I think first that the family really, you know, would want us to say this. You know, why was nobody in the federal government blocking the federal prosecution from taking on this [incompr.]

JAY: Brian, you worked alongside Aaron. Tell us a little bit about the man. What motivated him, first of all, do you think, to take these documents in the first place? I don’t think he ever denied doing it. But it was part of a broader vision he had about the world. What was that?

GUTHRIE: Aaron is most often known for his technical contributions, but he really had the soul of a philosopher and activist. He was extremely widely read. He reached out early and often in his life to his heroes and people he admired, asking how he could get involved and how he could help out. And he used those technical skills to improve things all over the internet. I mean, one thing that you see people talking about everywhere is how often Aaron would reach out, out of the blue, with offers to help, to get involved, to support their website in some way. He really had a prodigious intellect and genuinely wanted to use that intellect and his skills and energy to do good in the world.

He was also a tremendous writer, very, very thoughtful. And his personality really comes out, I think, in his online writings. When you met Aaron in person, face to face, he was a little quiet, he was very humble. He didn’t come across as being this incredible activist. But really, when you follow what he had to say online and read the online archive of his thoughts and his opinions, you see this unbelievably thoughtful individual with a wealth of knowledge who really had done the research and worked his way through the issues.

JAY: You must have discussed this specific case with him. How did he explain to you why he had done it and what his expectations were?

SINGHAM: Aaron had a pretty disciplined approach to the way he worked and how he wanted to do good in the world in the issue of copyright specifically. He was targeting databases of documents that really had a public-good aspect and should have been opened by virtue of either government funding or content that was otherwise public domain as the property of the United States people.

For example, the PACER database is a database of court documents that he helped to bring out into the open internet that PACER was charging money for. Those documents are public domain. They are funded and produced by the United States people. There’s no reason why they should be behind a paywall.

And that was the sort of thing that Aaron did. He was looking for the disconnect between the laws that we have about our information and the way in which regular people have access to that information. And that’s what he was doing here. He was trying to bring an important database of documents that should have been opened out into the world.

SINGHAM: And there’s all kinds of even [incompr.] nuances. For example, most academics who write these journals, they’re not getting paid for these materials. They’re often funded by state institutions. And so—and/or the copyright has expired and these kind of things. In fact, JSTOR just last week released millions of documents, because—.

GUTHRIE: Twenty percent of their archive.

SINGHAM: Twenty percent. One of the things that he said in his speech, I think, in 2011 was, you know, here we have the last hundreds of years of human knowledge. I as a student in a wealthy country, in a wealthy institution, I have access to this, but, you know, a young girl in India, she has no access to the world’s scientific and literary culture. I mean, this is a really dramatic change in how we think of knowledge. I mean, there was a library, and you can go read this. Now we’re saying that a poor, you know, child in some country, in Brazil, has no access to the world’s intellectual legacy. This really morally offended him. And he also understood, you know, the damage that it was going to do to society.

GUTHRIE: [incompr.] JSTOR has a mission to do public good, and they were certainly founded with good intentions. And I think that we’ve been a lot happier with the way they’ve comported themselves here than with some of the other institutions that were involved.

But Aaron’s point was that academics share access to that knowledge already. JSTOR started to charge a prescription fee to institutions to gain access to their databases. And academics already share access to that. They invite people into their networks. They’ll share passwords in order to give other people access. Academics form a community around sharing with the intent to bring that knowledge out into the world. They’re not, most of them, reflexively protective people of their research. They want more people to go out and read their research.

But people growing up and living in places without access to those expensive subscriptions don’t have the same wherewithal to gain access to that knowledge. And he wanted to change that in a really big way.

JAY: So, Roy, why does this prosecutor—and as you said, it’s not likely just one prosecutor here. There’s got to be other people in the justice department that are aware of all this. Why do they go after him (same question again) so strongly? Why do they consider this so threatening?

SINGHAM: So, I mean, you know, obviously we don’t have the chance—I mean, Heymann, who is the particularly egregious prosecutor, he worked for Ortiz. He was the head of the office. The two of them have, in my opinion, a 100 percent culpability for the overreach and for what happened here. Whether or not, you know, Holder or other people discussed this case, it’s highly implausible to me that they didn’t.

And if you look at the timing of when these charges were filed against Aaron, it was exactly at the time of, you know, Assange and Manning, and there was just this paranoia, you know, in the Justice Department, in Homeland Security, that [incompr.] There’s a generation of hackers out there that if we do not suppress and grab these people, our national security is in threat. And so the mood at the time was really, let us go out and guarantee [incompr.] even says this, not only Aaron, I mean, Jeremy Hammond, the Anonymous, a lot of these guys who—and [incompr.] who have been very active in internet freedom, they are being hunted down globally.

I mean, this is—so if you ask me as a social—an historic thing, I had an internal debate with some of our colleagues last night about the press statement that we issued, because, you know, there is this question of why would Thoughtworks care as the company, ’cause we are very much calling for an investigation of prosecutorial overreach, and we’re calling also for an apology by MIT to the family and for changes in policy.

Why is that important? Isn’t internet access important? Yes. If we allow the 12-year-old—and if you look at Aaron’s site, for example, there’s a 14-year-old who posted about how Aaron is their hero. Imagine if that 14-year-old who could be the next Aaron reads this thing about, you know, his—you know, the threats of imprisonment and what happened to Aaron. That young, you know, future humanist internet, you know, revolutionary is crushed.

We have been forced into a defensive position to fight the suppression of civil resistance and disobedience. And unfortunately we, some of us—that’s why it was just amazing, the last two days, some of the most creative and intelligent responses of the community towards these egregious acts.

JAY: Is part of this that, you know, the United States has military superiority over just about everybody, they have financial superiority over just about everybody? But is it—and when it comes to computer technology—and they are so vulnerable on that front—that maybe they don’t have intellectual superiority, and that leaves them feeling open?

GUTHRIE: We have a narrative that we’ve constructed because technology is new and because it seems scary of the rogue hacker who can gain access to any system and do what they want with it at will, which simply isn’t true. I mean, our understanding of technology is certainly still evolving. But I think Aaron got sucked into that narrative that prosecutors can use to their advantage if they’re trying to bring home a prosecution, if they can paint Aaron in a particular way that makes him part of this unnoble, vast conspiracy of hackers. And Aaron—.

JAY: Yeah. You explained something to me off-camera which is important, which is that Aaron actually didn’t hack anything. I mean, he had a password. What Aaron did is akin to somebody going into a library with their library card and photocopying books and then, you know, planning to hand out the copies, isn’t it?

SINGHAM: But remember, he didn’t even make the copies. In that case, he didn’t even make the copies.

GUTHRIE: Right. It’s equivalent to checking out a lot of books very quickly, right? Unfortunately, it impacted the system for other people because he was downloading the papers very quickly. But he didn’t do anything that any reasonable person would characterize as hacking. He didn’t break into any systems. He didn’t change any passwords. He didn’t do anything that the website he was accessing didn’t already allow people to access. He didn’t so much as change the URL, which is an extremely—

SINGHAM: Obvious.

GUTHRIE: —an extremely obvious—it’s something that increasingly has come to be used as a tool to accuse people of hacking. If you ever changed the URL of a YouTube video, there are people who would claim that under the wrong circumstances that’s hacking. And Aaron didn’t even go that far. He simply wasn’t that person.

JAY: So doesn’t this mean—I mean, if an ordinary student that had no history of internet activism, of having had such high-level skills, if an ordinary student had done the same thing, it seems like it’s not likely to have had the same kind of prosecutorial effort here. Were they not going after him because he’s Aaron Swartz and because they’re afraid of what people like Aaron are capable of?

SINGHAM: I mean, that’s my opinion, that this is a calculated move be the authorities to suppress the next generation. And, by the way, these civil disobedience are the same as Dr. King, the same as Gandhi, right? The argument that, you know, Gandhi broke the law because he called for the salt tax or, you know, Dr. King violated the law by, you know, breaking segregation, if a small transgression of an unjust law—. I mean, Aaron, you know, was a risk-taker. He believed—you know, and whether or not he could have possibly foreseen this [incompr.] absurd response is probably unlikely. But he understood that the laws that were no longer keeping up with the changes of technology, that laws that had passed 30 or 40 years ago had no relevance in this new area, were being used by a small group of very large corporations to privatize and monetize what was the human legacy of intellectual capital. That’s why even The Economist, not known for its progressive views, called him the “commons man” and not [incompr.] in the sense of the defender or one of the great defenders of the concept of the commons [incompr.] and, as we know, that complete erosion. So Aaron in that sense was taking on directly the economic interests of the people who are trying to privatize human knowledge.

But he also knew that there was a relationship between that and the state, which was actually why most of what you worked with him on was activism around legislation for this, because he then began to realize that the broader context was a political context. Even as passionate as he was about the Creative Commons, he was also passionate about the next generation of fighters.

JAY: Yeah. Brian, talk a little bit about the other areas that Aaron worked in, ’cause you told me off-camera this actually was really a very small piece of Aaron’s activism.

GUTHRIE: Yeah. I mean, Aaron—again, we know him as a technologist, but technology to him was a tool. It’s something that he wanted to leverage to really make change in the world. The work we were doing with him at Thoughtworks involved building a piece of software using the same tools and techniques that your startups in Silicon Valley are using to get people to post more on Facebook, applying that same level of analytical detail to encourage people to do good in the world and bring their voice out into the collective of people who are trying to change things.

And so to that end, they’re working on a piece of software that he intended to bring out and make—it’s available for free now. You can download it yourself. It’s released under an open-source license. He wanted to use that to bring the most advanced tools for social activism on the internet in the world to people who might not otherwise have access to them without a subscription fee.

SINGHAM: Yeah. I mean, [incompr.] people think of him in some ways as a global Western hero. He was deeply an internationalist. I mean, in this particular [incompr.] he realized that the knowledge about campaigning and structuring right now is a wealthy-country phenomenon, and that even the progressives, there’s a risk that the agendas are set not by the people themselves, but by an elite, even an elite that’s pretending to speaking on behalf of the people. And so he was fiercely a democrat in the small-D sense of saying, what happens if I’m a villager in Burundi and I want to have my campaign around whatever my issues are, and I don’t want that agenda to be [incompr.] by somebody in Washington, or even [incompr.] person in New York, how do they use that [incompr.] cell phones and all these things. He was an incredibly advanced thinker about the nature of political power, how to democratize access, how the internet ought to have been used to disempower wealth accumulation and power accumulation. He was really one of the last standing, you know, in that sense, humanists who fought aggregated power and totalitarian states.

JAY: Brian, people like Aaron usually are able to make a lot of money, and that’s what they focus on. But he never seemed all that interested in it, if that’s what—if I understand correctly.

GUTHRIE: Yeah. It—to his enormous credit, you know, I think he could have gone almost anywhere and done almost anything. I think he fell into money rather than seeking it. And, you know, it’s to his enormous credit that he continued to pursue opportunities, wherever he could find them, to do good rather than make money. And he actively pursued that, rather than staying with the company helped found,, after it sailed to Condé Nast, he parted ways with them and used that money the same way we’d use oxygen, not to help propel him into the ranks of the wealthy, but to keep him going and give him the freedom to do what he needed to do to improve the world.

SINGHAM: Yeah, I mean, just—you know, I mean, I think people—I mean, Larry said it in his pieces. It wasn’t a lot of money. It wasn’t as much money as people think.


SINGHAM: And he was only one of the owners. And he pretty much decimated that in the cause of all these things, PACER, living—you know, he wasn’t a man of means.


SINGHAM: Right? And so there’s a little bit of a misleading thing that—to believe that he sat there. So, therefore, here is this guy. And I—as a technologist, I’m very worried that young technical people are given the beautiful pictures of Steve Jobs as an icon. The human race needs Aaron Swartz as an icon, not Steve Jobs, because we are lucky, I mean, in our industry, because we get to do things we like for a living [inaud.] What do you use that for? And Aaron, in that sense, [incompr.] in my mind, the most important role model of your generation, certainly in the United States, and, I would argue, for somebody of privilege in the world, that there cannot be—.

And, you know, it’s hard for me. And I think Aaron—and, I mean, you know, you and I are in this incredibly fortunate thing, ’cause we spent a lot of time with Aaron in the last, you know, six or eight months. And I have cried for two days straight, as you have. And it’s only today, in day three, that we can sort of begin to rebuild Aaron’s legacy in the way that we know he would want us to.

The thing that really disturbs me in all this kind of stuff is that they want to pigeonhole Aaron into too many narrow sets, right? It’s the hacker or the internet guy. I have met—you and I have met lots of people. Can you imagine a deeper-caring person? I mean, it’s just incredible. I mean, I still cry. I mean, he would touch anybody and do anything. I—we had a meeting, you know, recently about how could we change American views towards Muslims. Here’s this young, beautiful Jewish kid. He walks into a room with a bunch of, you know, Muslim activists saying, we have to do something to change American opinion. He gets up on a white board and he says, listen, what we need to do is have a war against the merchants of hate. [incompr.] He walked in there for—what, you guys were in there for an hour or two.


SINGHAM: He would do those kind of things. His breadth of the issues that he would concern with were truly astounding. And a lot of the people, because he was in that sense quite a radical—I mean, he read Chomsky when he was 15. And those kind of things, again, people don’t want to talk about. He was deeply unsatisfied. In fact, one of his speeches on SOPA, you know, when he first called about it, he says, listen, I’m not interested in copyright law; I want to deal with health care access, you know, I want to deal with this financial crisis, I want to understand how we don’t have the Congress in the pay of these military contractors. I mean, he was thinking about every issue.

JAY: Roy, a lot of people watching are going to ask—you know, are going to be asking the question, you know, why didn’t he want to fight this case. Now, we know that Aaron suffered from depression. And so—I mean, it’s not one and one equals two that he was facing a jail sentence and this was his choice; he wasn’t—you know, I mean, the depression obviously played a major role here.

GUTHRIE: One of the things that’s come out into the internet after his passing is that—one of the things I’ve learned—I had no the problem was this big—is that the minimum amount of money to fight a federal grand jury case, even if you’re completely innocent, even if you do, I guess, one day of trial and then walk away, you’re looking at $1.5 million. I can’t imagine the kind of [crosstalk]

SINGHAM: Money he didn’t have.

GUTHRIE: Yeah. Yeah. And in order to do that, he would have had to go out and, I think, ask for that money, right? And that—.

SINGHAM: And we were trying to help raise that money for him. I kept on personally saying, Aaron, the community will come to your defense. But he was such a polite, private person, that was just inconceivable to him. Yeah. And I think, you know, one never knows what happened to somebody’s—in their brain. And, you know, I’ve had to deal with it in my personal life, people who I know are depressed. And I’ve thought a lot about this question of depression. So I’m aware that depression is a complex thing. And he was very open about it. I mean, very few people of his stature would have been as open and honest as he was about this thing. You know.

And I feel that, you know, I can say safely that he was loved. I mean, you know, his partner and his parents are just amazing people. You know, he knew that he was loved. But it is difficult, no matter what anybody says, to have somebody who’s thinking about the most deepest future of the human race to have this distraction, to be embarrassed about himself, to know there’s a possibility of going to jail. I have—none of us in the family or in the company allege a direct correlation. But, you know, we did care for him. [incompr.] loved him.

And, of course, any time you have a tragic thing, we all had to go through a self-realization—did we do enough, could we have done more. I mean, there’s no way around that as a grieving process. But that misses the point. What if he hadn’t? Would that change the outcome of going after prosecutorial reach? Would that excuse what MIT did? Would not the same terror to a young person fearing a jail sentence have occurred?

It doesn’t in the end matter, really, about the thing. It’s personally a tragedy for Aaron and personally a tragedy for all of us who loved him. And that’s a horrible thing, and we want accountability for that.

But the broader is much deeper: intimidate the next generation of intellectual fighters, and we have created the world’s greatest totalitarian state that dwarfs 1984.

JAY: Alright. Thank you both for joining us.

GUTHRIE: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


ADAM SWARTZ: The internet really is out of control. But if we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us we didn’t actually make a difference, if we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work and it’s our job just to go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers, well, then next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.

TEXT ON SCREEN: Aaron Swartz 1986-2013.


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