There was only one problem: Swartz was busted by the cops. With concern about cyberattacks growing in the U.S., the feds wanted to make an example of him. Facing charges including wire fraud and computer fraud, Swartz was looking at a possible sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for a crime that was essentially victimless and motivated by a passion for intellectual freedom. “It’s a serious problem where you think we’re in the middle of an information revolution, but computers and copyright law are being used to lock up information rather than encourage its dissemination,” said Jennifer Granick, director of civil liberties for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford.
As news of Swartz’s fight with the Department of Justice traveled the internet, he became a folk hero.
While awaiting his fate in the MIT case, Swartz organized a massive online rally against the federal government’s Stop Online Piracy Act, which, many have argued, overstepped its bounds by enabling the authorities to stomp on citizens’ freedoms online. Among other things, SOPA would allow the Department of Justice to effectively cripple a site: barring ads, blocking search engines and stopping online payment services. As part of what became known as Internet Blackout Day, Swartz urged geek hubs including Reddit, Boing Boing and Major League Gaming to go dark on January 18, 2012 as a statement against SOPA. Wikipedia went dark too, running a banner that read, “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” Google joined in the fight, amassing 7 million signatures. It was a protest on a scale the net, and Washington, had never seen.
The next day, the DOJ and FBI struck back by shutting down Megaupload. Anonymous, the hacker collective, fired back by crashing the sites of the Recording Industry Association of America and CBS, which supported SOPA. Proponents of the bill could not ignore the hacktivist uprising anymore. SOPA was defeated. For Swartz and the other freedom fighters, it was the greatest victory in the history of online protest.
On January 9, 2013 prosecutors told Swartz’s attorney they wanted him to plead guilty to 13 counts in the MIT case, for which he’d likely receive six months in prison. Swartz and his lawyers rejected the deal, assuming they’d win the trial scheduled for April. Swartz, however, would not live to see the judge. Two days later he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. The man who had devoted his life to keeping the net free was dead.
Although the feds dropped the case against him, his fight continues. Anonymous hacked the U.S. Sentencing Commission website, leaving a memorial in Swartz’s honor. MIT and the House Oversight Committee announced investigations into Swartz’s prosecution. Online petitions grew, calling for the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. In tribute to Swartz’s efforts with JSTOR, scholars began to release their papers online for free.
What was Aaron Swartz’s most vicious crime? As Demand Progress executive director David Segal said in a statement, “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
For the legions of online freedom fighters who remain, the skirmishes are far from over. But here’s the thing: The fighting will likely lessen greatly with time. The reason? The generation gap between the people who grew up online and the ones who didn’t will fade. It’s naive to think, with money and sensitive information at stake, these battles will ultimately disappear. But they will diminish. Many of the struggles have been brought by people—publishers, politicians, parents—who feel threatened by the democratization of power and access online. It’s not surprising that some of the most important innovations of the online age—from Napster to Facebook—were invented in dorm rooms and not in corporate offices.
This is not to say freedom online comes without consequence. The line between good and evil is hard to define in the shadowy world of the internet. Take renowned hacker Barnaby Jack, who died mysteriously in July. (As of press time the cause was unknown.) Jack had become famous for publicly demonstrating “Jackpotting”—his ability to hack into ATMs and make them spit out money. He famously hacked into insulin-pump systems and was about to demonstrate how to hack into a heart pacemaker (“human hacking”) at the time of his death. His work was called “white hat” hacking; he was a good guy—exposing weaknesses so they could be fixed. But what put his work in the spotlight was its whiff of the sinister, suggesting just how devious hackers could get.
An even bigger case is that of Edward Snowden, the hacker at the center of what will go down as one of the most important news stories of 2013. While working with Booz Allen Hamilton as a contractor for the National Security Agency, Snowden used his skills to gather highly classified secrets from the U.S. government. Then he leaked those secrets to journalists. Some called him a traitor. He believed he was exposing surveillance methods that were unconstitutional. The U.S. government has charged him with espionage. In August, Snowden, nationless and trying to avoid major prison time, was granted temporary asylum in Russia.
All of which is to say: Freedom on the internet is like freedom anywhere. When laws are stripped away, human nature reveals itself in all its glory and inglory. The important thing is to be able to distinguish one from the other and act accordingly.
The net has always been a young person’s medium. That’s why, since the emergence of the web in the mid-1990s, many internet pioneers have been demonized just as rock-and-rollers were in the 1950s. When rock and roll emerged, Elvis was shown only from the waist up on The Ed Sullivan Show because his gyrating hips were considered threatening. Same thing with the net. Whether it’s Doom or Formspring or Snapchat, either you grew up with it or you didn’t. The ones who feel threatened have tried to tame online freedom through lawsuits and legislation, ultimately to no real avail. They still seem to believe they can stop a guy like Swartz and “send a message” to other hacktivists down the line. But they can’t.
So what to do? Stop trying to disempower the empowered. Instead, adapt—as quickly as possible. Those who embrace the power of the web and use it to reinvent industry will ultimately lift themselves, their nations and their generations to new heights.
In addition to giving people more access to information and one another, the hacktivists I’ve met have one other trait in common. They innovate to fill a personal need. Zuckerberg coded Facebook because Harvard didn’t have a good means for students to keep track of one another. The Two Johns created Doom because it was the kind of game they wanted to play. Swartz freed the files on JSTOR because they were the kind of articles he wanted to read. But their personal need is a generational one as well, and that’s why they find so much support among their peers.