I've been reading a lot about Aaron Swartz. He's a young man, 26, who helped build several of the online tools we use today (RSS, Reddit, OpenLibrary) when he was still in his teens. A polymath, history was a passion of his. Learning was a passion. Open access to information was, it seems from what I've read, his raison d'etre. His driving passion. He did many things to change how information is shared, including, allegedly, hacking into proprietary systems and freeing the information. For this, the owners of those systems (both nonprofit organizations, FYI) dropped their charges against him. One of those involved (JSTOR, a nonprofit provider of online academic articles) has subsequently freed a small portion of its materials. But all the charges weren't dropped, the tech and open access communities are furious, and his parents are blaming the FBI's relentless, aggressive "example-making" prosecution. An effort is underway to remove the US Attorney in charge of the prosecution, some are calling for a pardon, and academics are using the tools they have (ideas, papers, pdfs and twitter) to pay tribute at #pdftribute.
Because Aaron hanged himself on Friday, January 11.
I didn't know Aaron or his family during his life and I don't want to pretend to know him now. I am hesitant to jump on a private family tragedy and wax philosophical because I know how infuriating that can be to those in the midst of intimate sadness.
But Aaron's life was dedicated to the cause of information freedom, and I want to comment on that. I need to say this - our rules about information are clearly, clearly broken. For acts done to further a cause, we have now seen overzealous prosecution result in death. (We've seen this before in other eras, around other rights).
Wise artists, writers such as Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow, have been telling us this would happen for years (artists always see the future first). Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Demand Progress (founded by Aaron), Creative Commons and others are the rights advocates of our times.
Our rules about information have been rules about ownership. How we use information, give it, charge for it, share it. These rules are changing, due to the efforts of people such as Aaron. They must change more. How that happens will not be easy or simple. Big institutions will lose lots of power when we make the changes we need, but we can all hope it doesn't involve any more death.
When we talk about shifting how we own, give and share things, please realize this is the ground - moral, normative, and legal - upon which our systems and practices of philanthropy are also based. Aaron's fight is our fight. The ground is shifting. Pay attention.