Aaron Swartz — a prodigy, an outspoken political and technology activist, co-founder of Reddit, co-creator of RSS, and a central figure in the open Internet movement — was found dead in Brooklyn last weekend, of an apparent suicide. He was 26 and nearing a court appearance for hacking into an MIT database of academic papers to symbolically liberate the information.
There's already an outpouring of grief among Swartz's former partner, the technorati, and the high-tech venture capital world. There has also been considerable speculation that Swartz, who suffered from depression, was driven to kill himself by a government that didn't at all like his accrued power or point of view. At least one blogger has also suggested a more nefarious explanation for Swartz's demise.
Swartz was something of a techno-anarchist, taking his activism to an place that even garden variety Silicon Valley libertarians have been hesitant to go. In his mind, information was born free, but is everywhere in chains. In this, he lived slightly outside the Big Tech-Big Content debate that I've written about as an ongoing battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
But his sympathies definitely leaned toward technology (if not explicitly toward Big Tech, which he also seemed to deeply distrust). Hollywood, with its prosecutorial stance toward copyright infringement, was a dark force.
Seriously. It's worth watching the video I've embedded below for a download of exactly where Swartz was coming from where federal legislation on Internet piracy was concerned. It's from his 2012 keynote address at the "Freedom to Connect" conference (F2C). And it's not something the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) or its CEO, former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, would find particularly appealing.
In the speech, Swartz tells the story of his opposition to a bill that eventually became, in the House of Representatives, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). His activism began when an early Senate bill, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), emerged in 2010. COICA eventually morphed into the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and forced a showdown in Congress in early 2012 between Big Content and Big Tech.
Swartz staunchly opposed all versions of the legislation, going so far as to create a nonprofit, Demand Progress, out of a petition campaign (Demand Progress is still around). Losing the "ability to connect with people on the Internet," he said in his Freedom to Connect keynote, would be a "change to the Bill of Rights." Our freedoms, he insisted with no lack of overstatement, would be "deleted" if legislation such as this went forward.
Despite Swartz's efforts, COICA did get out of committee in the Senate, and by the time it became PIPA and joined SOPA in 2011, it looked as if the bills couldn't be stopped.
But almost overnight, Big Tech pulled its act together and, in memorable fashion made Wikipedia go dark for a day and reversed the tide of what looked like a sure win.
In the aftermath, Swartz doubled-down. He recalled a conversation with an unnamed Senator (possibly Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the original sponsor of COICA) in which he characterized his views and those of others in Congress as the "attitude of a tyrant."
Swartz also maintained that the MPAA's Dodd "masterminded the whole evil plan" and that the lobbyist admitted as much following the SOPA/PIPA defeat.
That's an extreme formulation — but an understandable one for a true believer in the open Internet movement. What's really going on is that Silicon Valley and Hollywood have increasingly incompatible business models and are looking to Washington to settle their differences. Silicon Valley builds technology platforms that are, in Swartz's mindset, ostensibly about the "freedom to connect," but also very much about the freedom to consume.
Consume what? Content, anywhere and anytime, and on any available screen. And much of that content is produced by Hollywood.
And Hollywood doesn't want to see its traditional protection of the opportunity to make money on that content — copyright — undermined.
Swartz took this debate beyond business models and made it about free speech, which he believed that copyright, in collision with the Internet, threatened. For him SOPA and PIPA were censorship of the Internet, pure and simple. He thought that the Supreme Court has a "blind spot" on copyright, "more than on pornography or even child pornography."
In this, while he accused Dodd of being an evil mastermind, he thought the Supreme Court's justices "shut off" their brains when copyright came up and "completely forgot about the first amendment."
"Deep down," he said, "you got the sense that they didn't even think the First Amendment applied when it came to copyright."
The problem here is that although Hollywood's view of copyright as a divine right doesn't really fit with the brave new world of digital distribution, Swartz's valorization of free people freely connecting sounds like an Internet from an era before online technology developed a business plan. He was passionate about why information should be free. But he didn't seem troubled by the idea that liberating information would make Silicon Valley rich and Hollywood ... rather less rich, if not exactly poor.
Still, in the end, Swartz did achieve victory over Hollywood. Which might not have happened if the nerd Utopian hadn't been so visionary in his disgust with copyright and the politics that protect it. As this battle continues, Swartz's considerable influence will hang, now tragically, over what happens next.