Do not think for a moment that Aaron’s work on JSTOR was the random act of a lone hacker, some kind of crazy, spur-of-the-moment bulk download.
JSTOR had long come in for withering criticism from the net. Larry Lessig called JSTOR a moral outrage in a talk and I suppose I have to confess he was quoting me. We weren’t the only ones fanning those flames.
Sequestering knowledge behind pay walls—making scientific journals only available to a few kids fortunate enough to be at fancy universities and charging $20 an article for the remaining 99% of us—was a festering wound. It offended many people.
It embarrassed many who wrote those articles that their work had become somebody’s profit margin, a members-only country club of knowledge.
Many of us helped fan those flames. Many of us feel guilty today for fanning those flames.
But JSTOR was just one of many battles. They tried to paint Aaron as some kind of lone-wolf hacker, a young terrorist who went on a crazy IP killing spree that caused $92 million in damages.
Aaron wasn’t a lone wolf, he was part of an army, and I had the honor of serving with him for a decade. You have heard many things about his remarkable life, but I want to focus tonight on just one.
Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.
He was part of an army of citizens that rejects kings and generals and believes in rough consensus and running code.
We worked together on a dozen government databases. When we worked on something, the decisions weren’t rash. Our work often took months, sometimes years, sometimes a decade, and Aaron Swartz did not get his proper serving of decades.
We grabbed that data and it was used to feed the Open Library here at the Internet Archive and it was used to feed Google Books. And, we got a letter from the Copyright Office waiving copyright on that copyright database. But before we did that, we had to talk to many lawyers and worry about the government hauling us in for malicious premeditated bulk downloading.
These were not random acts of aggression. We worked on databases to make them better, to make our democracy work better, to help our government. We were not criminals.
When we brought in 20 million pages of U.S. District Court documents from behind their 8 cent-per-page PACER pay wall, we found these public filings infested with privacy violations: names of minor children, names of informants, medical records, mental health records, financial records, tens of thousands of social security numbers.
We were whistle blowers and we sent our results to the Chief Judges of 31 District Courts and those judges were shocked and dismayed and they redacted those documents and they yelled at the lawyers that filed them and the Judicial Conference changed their privacy rules.
But you know what the bureaucrats who ran the Administrative Office of the United States Courts did? To them, we weren’t citizens that made public data better, we were thieves that took $1.6 million of their property.
So they called the FBI, they said they were hacked by criminals, an organized gang that was imperiling their $120 million per year revenue stream selling public government documents.
The FBI sat outside Aaron’s house. They called him up and tried to sucker him into meeting them without his lawyer. The FBI sat two armed agents down in an interrogation room with me to get to the bottom of this alleged conspiracy.
But we weren’t criminals, we were only citizens.
We did nothing wrong. They found nothing wrong. We did our duty as citizens and the government investigation had nothing to show for it but a waste of a whole lot of time and money.
If you want a chilling effect, sit somebody down with a couple overreaching federal agents for a while and see how quickly their blood runs cold.
There are people who face danger every day to protect us—police officers and firefighters and emergency workers—and I am grateful and amazed by what they do. But the work that people like Aaron and I did, slinging DVDs and running shell scripts on public materials, should not be a dangerous profession.
We weren’t criminals, but there were crimes committed, crimes against the very idea of justice.
When the U.S. Attorney told Aaron he had to plead guilty to 13 felonies for attempting to propagate knowledge before she’d even consider a deal, that was an abuse of power, a misuse of the criminal justice system, a crime against justice.
And that U.S. Attorney does not act alone. She is part of a posse intent on protecting property not people. All over the United States, those without access to means don’t have access to justice and face these abuses of power every day.
It was a crime against learning when a nonprofit corporation like JSTOR, charged with advancing knowledge, turned a download that caused no harm and no damage into a $92 million federal case.
And the JSTOR corporate monopoly on knowledge is not alone. All over the United States, corporations have staked their fences on the fields of education: for-profit colleges that steal from our veterans, nonprofit standards bodies that ration public safety codes while paying million dollar salaries, and multinational conglomerates that measure the worth of scientific papers and legal materials by their gross margins.
In the JSTOR case, was the overly aggressive posture of the Department of Justice prosecutors and law enforcement officials revenge because they were embarrassed that—in their view at least—we somehow got away with something in the PACER incident? Was the merciless JSTOR prosecution the revenge of embarrassed bureaucrats because they looked stupid in the New York Times, because the U.S. Senate called them on the carpet?
We will probably never know the answer to that question, but it sure looks like they destroyed a young man’s life in a petty abuse of power. This was not a criminal matter, Aaron was not a criminal.
If you think you own something and I think that thing is public, I’m more than happy to meet you in a court of law and—if you’re right—I’ll take my lumps if I’ve wronged you. But when we turn armed agents of the law on citizens trying to increase access to knowledge, we have broken the rule of law, we have desecrated the temple of justice.
Aaron Swartz was not a criminal, he was a citizen, and he was a brave soldier in a war which continues today, a war in which corrupt and venal profiteers try to steal and hoard and starve our public domain for their own private gain.
When people try to restrict access to the law, or they try to collect tolls on the road to knowledge, or deny education to those without means, those people are the ones who should face the stern gaze of an outraged public prosecutor.
What the Department of Justice put Aaron through for trying to make our world better is the same thing they can put you through. Our army isn’t one lone wolf, it is thousands of citizens—many of you in this room—who are fighting for justice and knowledge.
I say we are an army, and I use the word with cause because we face people who want to imprison us for downloading a database to take a closer look, we face people who believe they can tell us what we can read and what we can say.
But when I see our army, I see an army that creates instead of destroys. I see the army of Mahatma Gandhi walking peacefully to the sea to make salt for the people. I see the army of Martin Luther King walking peacefully but with determination to Washington to demand their rights because change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through continuous struggle.
When I see our army, I see an army that creates new opportunities for the poor, an army that makes our society more just and more fair, an army that makes knowledge universal.
When I see our army, I see the people who have created the Wikipedia and the Internet Archive, people who coded GNU and Apache and BIND and LINUX. I see the people who made the EFF and the Creative Commons. I see the people who created our Internet as a gift to the world.
When I see our army, I see Aaron Swartz and my heart is broken. We have truly lost one of our better angels.
I wish we could change the past, but we cannot. But, we can change the future, and we must.
We must do so for Aaron, we must do so for ourselves, we must do so to make our world a better place, a more humane place, a place where justice works and access to knowledge is a human right.