In our race to succeed and excel, we often forget what is truly important. In the chase for glory and glamour, the value of simple and elementary pleasures are forgotten. They say that you realize the true value of something only when it is lost. They say that our most valuable possession is not our house, not our car and not our most expensive gadget, but it is life itself. Unfortunately, the value of life is realized only when we are confronted by death itself.
On January 11, 2013 a life was lost. While many other lives were lost on the same day as well, I’m going to highlight just one today. One life that wasn’t truly lost, but was taken. The end of free content on the internet sends shivers down many a spine. For all our intelligence, power and connectivity, the most that we could do as individuals when faced with this possibility a few months ago was to share meaningless photographs across social networks and sign baseless petitions on websites that would amount to and achieve absolutely nothing. For many, the end of free content on the internet and censorship was a myth. It was incomprehensible that websites like Wikipedia would no longer exist and that we would have to pay to seek out information online. For many, these events went unnoticed and eventually, were deemed inconsequential.
Not for Aaron Swartz. At the age of 14, he achieved more than what many of us will achieve in our entire lifetime. At that tender age, he co-authored RSS, a family of web feed formats that are used today by the likes of Google to accumulate information from various websites on the internet and present it to you in a simple package or stream, like on their news page. While still in school, Swartz created an online encyclopedia that allowed people to add and edit information in it, long before Jimmy Wales came up with Wikipedia. Swartz was instrumental in the fight against SOPA last year and believed in the concept of free information for everyone.
The world isn’t kind to activists. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in the streets or behind a computer screen. They’re either neglected by those very people for whom they seek justice and a better world, or they are shunned and thrown behind bars by those that they oppose. JSTOR, a digital library that stores issues of academic papers, scientific journals and books, claimed that Aaron Swartz had hacked into their network, downloaded close to five million files with the intent of freely distributing them on the internet. Swartz wanted information to be free, and JSTOR was a trove of scientific information that was very useful for students worldwide. He was looking to make research material and scientific information easier for everyone to access, for free.
On reclaiming the articles from Aaron Swartz, JSTOR decided not to press charges. However, in July 2011 U.S Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz charged Swartz with computer fraud in addition to a number of other charges that racked up a total of 35 years of jailtime in addition to a million dollars in fines. In spite of JSTOR not pressing charges, the U.S Attorney decided to go ahead with the trial. If found guility, Aaron Swartz would spend pretty much his entire life in jail. And all of this not for crimes against humanity or for terrorism, but for trying to release academic information for free online.
Aaron Swartz faced decades in prison, simply for attempting to make the internet better. At the age of 26, on January 11 2013, Aaron Swartz took his own life.
They say that suicide is an act of cowardice, but in the case of Aaron Swartz, it is most definitely not so. The human brain is wired to fight for survival, it is our basic instinct to live. Many of us cannot even fathom the hopelessness that Swartz must have felt after being told about the potential sentence he faced. A 26 year old faced with 35 years in prison, for a “crime” as trivial as this is more than just ridiculous, and to be the one to carry out that sentence after striving your entire life for something as essential as the freedom of information and then being sentenced to life in prison for it, is daunting to say the very least.
The system is broken. It’s depressing how murderers, rapists and terrorists get away without facing any jail-time due to minor technicalities. Yet, in the eyes of the legal system, individuals like Aaron Swartz are Public Enemy #1.
The death of Aaron Swartz was not suicide, and it is not murder. It is something much greater. The death of Aaron Swartz is our failure as a species.
Rest in Peace Aaron, God knows you deserve it.