The tech community was stunned this week by the terribly sad news of the suicide of Aaron Swartz, one of Reddit’s co-founders and co-owners, co-author of the RSS 1.0 spec, and a tireless campaigner and advocate for web freedoms. It was in this role against internet censorship that Aaron found himself facing charges relating to hacking and computer fraud, having downloaded millions of academic documents from the JSTOR online resource, with the intention of distributing them freely online.
Aaron had denied the charges at a preliminary hearing, but was facing an imminent federal trial at the time of his death, and his family have since publicly accused federal and state officials and attorneys of being over-zealous in pursuing and harassing him, with the intention “to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.” Aaron’s family also named the Massachussets Institute of Technology as “contributing to his death,” further accusing MIT of “refusing to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
In this context, it’s not difficult to understand why internet hacktivist group Anonymous chose to hack the MIT website today, to leave a very personal tribute page for Aaron – and, in a significant departure from the group’s usual modus operandi, also leaving an apology to MIT‘s website administrators for doing so.
Anonymous doesn’t pull any punches in stating that “the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for.” The group also states its belief that “Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activisim; it had tragic consequences.” They add four wishes which they believe should be enacted:
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.
A postscript was also appended to the tribute page, apologising “for this temporary use” of MIT‘s site, and emphasising that Anonymous does not directly blame MIT for the tragedy:
We tender apologies to the administrators at MIT for this temporary use of their websites. We understand that it is a time of soul-searching for all those within this great institution as much — perhaps for some involved even more so — than it is for the greater internet community. We do not consign blame or responsibility upon MIT for what has happened, but call for all those feel heavy-hearted in their proximity to this awful loss to acknowledge instead the responsibility they have — that we all have — to build and safeguard a future that would make Aaron proud, and honour the ideals and dedication that burnt so brightly within him by embodying them in thought and word and action.
But even the significant departure from Anonymous tradition in that apology is perhaps not as noteworthy as the very personal tributes left on the page, by those who evidently knew Aaron personally:
Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.
You were the best of us; may you yet bring out the best in us. – Anonymous, Jan 13, 2013