Joho the Blog » aaron swartz

October 24, 2014

[clickbait] Copyright is sodomy

A year ago, Harold Feld posted one of the most powerful ways of framing our excessive zeal for copyright that I have ever read. I was welling up even before he brought Aaron Swartz into the context.

Harold’s post is within a standard Jewish genre: the d’var Torah, an explanation of a point in the portion of the Torah being read that week. As is expected of the genre, he draws upon a long, self-reflective history of interpretation. I urge you to read it because of the light it sheds on our culture of copyright, but it’s also worth noticing the form of the discussion.

The content: In the Jewish tradition, Sodom’s sin wasn’t sexual but rather an excessive possessiveness leading to a fanatical unwillingness to share. Harold cites from a collection of traditional commentary, The Ethics of Our Fathers:

“There are four types of moral character. One who says: ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ This is an average person. Some say it is the Way of Sodom. The one who says: ‘what is mine is yours and what is yours is mine,’ is ignorant of the world. ‘What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours’ is the righteous. ‘What is mine is mine and what is yours is mine’ is the wicked.”

In a PowerPoint, it’d be a 2×2 chart. Harold’s point will be that the ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.’ of the average person becomes wicked when enforced without compassion or flexibility. Harold evokes the traditional Jewish examples of Sodom’s wickedness and compares them to what’s become our dominant “average” assumptions about how copyright ought to work.

I am purposefully not explaining any further. Read Harold’s piece.

The form: I find the space of explanation within which this d’var Torah — and most others that I’ve heard — operates to be fascinating. At the heart of Harold’s essay is a text accepted by believers as having been given by God, yet the explanation is accomplished by reference to a history of human interpretations that disagree with one another, with guidance by a set of values (e.g., sharing is good) that persevere in a community thanks to that community’s insistent adherence to its tradition. The result is that an agnostic atheist like me (I’m only pretty sure there is no God) can find truth and wisdom in the interpretation of a text I take as being ungrounded in a divine act.

But forget all that. Read Harold’s post, bubbelah.


November 9, 2013

Aaron Swartz and the future of libraries

I was unable to go to our local Aaron Swartz Hackathon, one of twenty around the world, because I’d committed (very happily) to give the after dinner talk at the University of Rhode Island Graduate Library and Information Studies 50th anniversary gala last night.

The event brought together an amazing set of people, including Senator Jack Reed, the current and most recent presidents of the American Library Association, Joan Ress Reeves, 50 particularly distinguished alumni (out of the three thousand (!) who have been graduated), and many, many more. These are heroes of libraries. (My cousin’s daughter, Alison Courchesne, also got an award. Yay, Alison!)

Although I’d worked hard on my talk, I decided to open it differently. I won’t try to reproduce what I actually said because the adrenalin of speaking in front of a crowd, especially one as awesome as last night’s, wipes out whatever short term memory remains. But it went very roughly something like this:

It’s awesome to be in a room with teachers, professors, researchers, a provost, deans, and librarians: people who work to make the world better…not to mention the three thousand alumni who are too busy do-ing to be able to be here tonight.

But it makes me remember another do-er: Aaron Swartz, the champion of open access, open data, open metadata, open government, open everything. Maybe I’m thinking about Aaron tonight because today is his birthday.

When we talk about the future of libaries, I usually promote the idea of libraries as platforms — platforms that make openly available everything that libraries know: all the data, all the metadata, what the community is making of what they get from the library (privacy accommodated, of course), all the guidance and wisdom of librarians, all the content especially if we can ever fix the insane copyright laws. Everything. All accessible to anyone who wants to write an application that puts it to use.

And the reason for that is because in my heart I don’t think librarians are going to invent the future of libraries. It’s too big a job for any one group. It will take the world to invent the future of libraries. It will take 14 year olds like Aaron to invent the future of libraries. We need supply them with platforms that enable them.

I should add that I co-direct a Library Innovation Lab where we do work that I’m very proud of. So, of course libraries will participate in the invention of their future. But it’ll take the world — a world that contains people with the brilliance and commitment of an Aaron Swartz — to invent that future fully.


Here are wise words delivered at an Aaron Hackathon last night by Carl Malamud: Hacking Authority. For me, Carl is reminding us that the concept of hacking over-promises when the changes threaten large institutions that represent long-held values and assumptions. Change often requires the persistence and patience that Aaron exhibited, even as he hacked.

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July 30, 2013

Aaron Swartz and MIT’s neutrality

In my reading, MIT does not come off as cleanly in Hal Abelson’s excellent report as Pres. Reif’s spin suggests.

When Pres. Reif writes that MIT’s actions were “reasonable, appropriate and made in good faith” I think we have to ask “Appropriate to what?” To MIT’s interests as a legal entity? Very likely. To MIT as a university? Not in my book. I won’t try to adjudicate the claims that MIT cooperated eagerly with the prosecutors but dragged its feet with the defense; I’m too emotionally involved to trust my reading of the evidence in the Abelson report. But, MIT’s timid “neutrality” wasted an opportunity to stand against the unreasonable and inappropriate tactics of the prosecutors, and to stand for the spirit of inquiry, openness, innovation, and risk-taking that has made MIT one of the world’s great universities.

I understand that MIT wasn’t going to say that it was fine with Aaron’s breaching its contract with JSTOR. But MIT could have stood against prosecutorial overreach, and for the values— if not the exact actions— Aaron embodied.

Larry Lessig has posted incisive comments about MIT’s neutrality.


March 16, 2013

What The New Yorker doesn’t say about Aaron

I first read Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker article on Aaron Swartz too quickly. But it doesn’t skim well. I found that encouraging.

I finally sat down to read it thoroughly a couple of days ago, and liked it very much. It’s beautifully written. More important, she does not have an hypothesis to bolster or an explanation to flog. She begins and ends with long quotes from the people around Aaron, without commenting on them. She is not arguing that he killed himself because he was clinically depressed — with the political subtext that comes from that reading — and she is not arguing that he killed himself because grownups overly burdened him, or even because of prosecutorial overreach. Larissa lets Aaron, his friends, and his family speak for themselves.

You come out of the piece with the idea that Aaron was complex, and that life wasn’t easy for him. The writer of the article’s subhead over-simplifies this into the sort of simple Theory of Aaron that the article itself avoids: “Aaron Swartz was brilliant and beloved. But the people who knew him best saw a darker side.” The article is more about complexity than darkness. It ties Aaron’s path from idea to cause to his moral commitments and to his many-cornered personality. Given the impossibility of capturing any human life in words, it does a good job.

But in the days after reading it, I’ve been bothered by something that Larissa leaves out. You don’t come out of it with a sense of what Aaron accomplished or of the impact of those accomplishments. I understand that Larissa was not attempting to write the definitive biography, and that she was more interested in exploring Aaron’s character in the context of those who loved him. But I’m afraid that a reader who comes to her article without knowing what Aaron actually did will leave with the impression that Aaron was too feckless and inconstant to translate his passions into achievement.

If Larissa decides to turn her article into a book, it will be important to bring readers to understand the maturity of Aaron’s achievements. Without that, a portrait of Aaron — no matter how open and beautiful — is necessarily misleading.


January 15, 2013

Why we mourn

CNN asked me to write 600-800 words about Aaron Swartz. I demurred at first, suggested some other people who knew Aaron better — I met Aaron when he was young, stayed in touch, had the occasional meal with him, admired him and loved him more than he knew — and agreed when CNN came back to me.

I have trepidation about what I wrote, which CNN has now posted. I don’t like the implication that we can sum up any life so glibly. But I also wanted to do a little to nudge attention from Aaron solely as a champion of open information. I also decided not to assess the blame that is so well deserved, because that’s well discussed already.

A handful of better sources and expressions:

There’s so much more, because no life can be told.

Here is Aaron in his own words, in a presentation at the Freedom to Connect conference last May.

And here is Larry Lessig on Democracy Now:


Tim Wu on prosecuting Aaron

… Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of “everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer.” Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.

It’s one thing to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.

Tim Wu

Full article in the New Yorker.


My friend David Isenberg cautions us not to think of this as Aaron encountering one bad apple in the system. Rather, says David, “The legal system was working just like it always works…The case of US v Swartz was business as usual.”

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January 13, 2013

Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.

Of course Aaron was a legendary prodigy of a hacker in the sense of someone who can build anything out of anything. But that’s not what the media mean when they call him a hacker. They’re talking about his downloading of millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, and there’s a slight chance they’re also thinking about his making available millions of pages of federal legal material as part of the RECAP project.

Neither the JSTOR nor RECAP downloads were cases of hacking in the sense of forcing your way into a system by getting around technical barriers. Framing Aaron’s narrative — his life as those who didn’t know him will remember it — as that of a hacker is a convenient untruth.

As Alex Stamos makes clear, there were no technical, legal, or contractual barriers preventing Aaron from downloading as many articles in the JSTOR repository as he wanted, other than the possibility that Aaron was trespassing, and even that is questionable. (The MIT closet he “broke into” to gain better access to the network apparently was unlocked.) Alex writes:

Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.

Clearly, this is not what JSTOR had in mind, but it is also something its contract permitted and its technology did nothing to prevent. As Brewster Kahle wrote yesterday:

When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.

As for RECAP, the material Aaron made available was all in the public domain.

Aaron was not a hacker. He was a builder:

  • Aaron helped build the RSS standard that enabled a rush of information and ideas — what we blandly call “content” — to be distributed, encountered, and re-distributed. [source]

  • Aaron did the initial architecture of, promoting a license that removes the friction from the reuse of copyrighted materials. [source]

  • Aaron did the initial architecture of the Open Library, a source of and about books open to the world. [source]

  • Aaron played an important role in spurring the grassroots movement that stopped SOPA, a law that would have increased the power of the Hollywood-DC alliance to shut down Web sites. [source]

  • Aaron contributed to the success of Reddit, a site now at the heart of the Net’s circulatory system for many millions of us.

  • Aaron contributed to Markdown, a much simpler way of writing HTML Web pages. (I use it for most of my writing.) [source]

  • Aaron created Infogami, software that made it easy for end-users to create Web sites that feature collaboration and self-expression. (Reddit bought Infogami.) [source]

  • Aaron wrote, which he described as “a free software web application library for Python. It makes it easier to develop web apps in Python by handling a lot of the Web-related stuff for you. Reddit was built using it, for example.” (In that interview you’ll hear Aaron also talk about his disgust at the level of misogyny in the tech world.) [source]

  • Aaron founded Demand Progress and helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, pioneering grassroots political groups. [source]

The mainstream media know that their non-technical audience will hear the term “hacker” in its black hat sense. We need to work against this, not only for the sake of Aaron’s memory, but so that his work is celebrated, encouraged, and continued.

Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.


January 12, 2013

Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz

It was with a shock of emotions beyond articulation that I read this morning that Aaron Swartz killed himself yesterday.

I first met Aaron when he was 14 or 15, at a conference where he was being consulted by graybeards with technical questions. I kept in touch, and followed his activities. Aaron was a prodigy not only of technology but of democracy. Every single project he undertook aimed at improving the public sphere — more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, better information, and less corruption. He wanted the public sphere to be more of us and be more ours.

I was so looking forward to watching him continue to grow, invent, and contribute. I admired him, and I enjoyed his company, and I didn’t ever want to have to use the past tense in talking about him. The future was so much more appropriate.

Cory Doctorow writes movingly and clearly about Aaron’s here.

I am so sorry for his family, for his friends, for all of us who knew him, and for those who did not have that chance.

Young Aaron (14-15) with Larry Lessig
Young Aaron (14-15 years old) with Larry Lessig


Here’s something I just posted at Reddit:

Aaron was a hero of the Internet.

Everything he did in his way too short life was aimed at making the connected world more open, with lower barriers, richer connections, more knowledge, more sharing, and less corruption. Consider Aaron’s work on standards for sharing ideas, his commitment to progressive and bottom-up politics, his efforts to provide free access to public domain court records), his work against corruption in politics, his contribution to the struggle against SOPA, the app he wrote for making it easier to create blogs and wikis (acquired by Reddit), his commitment to open information. And more.

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