Many of you have probably heard about the suicide of Aaron Swartz, who took his life on January 11 2013 at the age of 26.
I never found the time to write about Aaron, but received an email today that I’d like to share. This is especially for us who work in academia, but also relevant for people who believe that information should be shared, and that education is a basic right. The email was written by Prof Bruce Stinebrickner.
Dear DePauw Faculty and Staff,
As many of you may know, our daughter Taren’s beloved partner, Aaron Swartz— human rights activist and computer genius—died Friday. He took his own life in despair over prosecution by the US government. On Tuesday, Aaron was buried, but we hope that the ideals to which he devoted his life were not buried with him. Here are six things we can do, individually and collectively, to further his legacy.
1) Support the adoption of an open-access policy by DePauw faculty and DePauw University. Aaron believed passionately that information—especially scholarly information—should be freely available to all people on this planet, not just privileged individuals like us who have the institutional ties or individual wealth necessary to access it. We believe that, too. In recent years, faculty at some of the world’s leading universities have adopted policies requiring that all research published in scholarly journals by faculty and students at that institution also be made available on-line for free. Hope College, a GLCA sister institution of DePauw, has already adopted an open-access policy. DePauw should follow suit as soon as possible, and then encourage the rest of the GLCA and other liberal arts colleges to do so as well.
2) Consider making your publications open-access. Most open-access policies at universities are prospective, not retrospective, thus denying most people free access to scholarship that has already been published. In solidarity with Aaron, this week thousands of scholars have posted their own published articles at http://pdftribute.net/ If you have none to post, then post something by a scholar who has died and cannot liberate his or her own articles. As Aaron wrote in 2008, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. . . . Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves.”
3) Support the nomination of Aaron to be the recipient of the American Library Association’s 2013 James Madison Award. Before Aaron’s death, DePauw librarian Bruce Sanders was preparing to nominate Aaron for the ALA’s annual award to the person who has “championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s ‘right to know.’” James Jacobs and Shinjoung Yeo of Stanford University seconded the nomination, as did the People’s Librarians of Occupy Wall Street through Mandy Henk. If you are a member of the ALA, please consider adding your voice in support.
4) Sign the White House petition protesting overreach of prosecutorial power. Hundreds of articles and blogs have been written in the past few days about the overreach of prosecutorial power that led directly to Aaron’s death, including one by the retired federal judge from the US District Court where Aaron was indicted. But Aaron is only one of literally millions of people in the USA—most of them poor and powerless—who suffer from a system of injustice that allows prosecutors to pile on charges and potential years of incarceration to the extent that nearly all defendants are forced to accept plea bargains. Fewer than 3% of defendants in federal cases last year had the temerity to take their cases to trial. The White House petition, which has already been signed by 35,000 people, asks for the dismissal of Aaron’s prosecutor—a symbolic but important step to take. Prosecutorial discretion at the federal, state and local levels needs to be reined in and federal prosecutors in particular need to be made more accountable.
5) Support the newly proposed “Aaron’s Law,” which would reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). On the day Aaron was buried, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren introduced “Aaron’s Law,” which would amend a key part of the CFAA, one of the statutes under which Aaron was indicted. According to DemandProgress.org (one of the many organizations that Aaron founded in his short life), “The CFAA makes violations of a website’s terms of service agreement or user agreement—that fine print you never read before you check the box next to it—a FELONY, potentially punishable by many years in prison. That’s how over-broad this dangerous statute is, and one way it lets showboating prosecutors file charges against people who’ve done nothing wrong.” You can sign the letter supporting Aaron’s Law here.
6) Share this letter with colleagues at other universities. The day after his death, Aaron’s family and Taren released a statement about Aaron’s legacy that read in part:
“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the range and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across the world. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.”
Like so many others, we loved Aaron and shall miss him terribly. Thank you for your help in honoring his memory.
“I hope that you are a disaster. I’m sorry, but I do. I hope that you are thunder and lightning. I hope you are a forest fire, I hope you kill the dead wood and burn off the rotting leaves. With the canopy gone, the sun can get in. You need new growth. I hope you’re terrible and broken and perfect.”
“The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.”
“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. A vapor, a drop of water, is enough to kill a human being. But even if the universe should crush him, man would still be more noble than that which destroys him, because he knows that he dies, and he realizes the advantage that the universe possesses over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”
“If we are to have another contest in our national existence I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixons, but between patriotism & intelligence on the one side, & superstition, ambition, & ignorance on the other [...] Resolve that either the state or Nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning [...] sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education.
[...] Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and private schools entirely supported by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”