Silence On Swartz

In India we fight for online freedom but are silent at Aaron Swartz’s death. Why the hypocrisy?

Aaron Swartz

Who was Aaron Swartz?

Aaron was a super-talented computer programmer who made free access to digital data and knowledge his life’s aim. He was one of the main drivers of the Open Library Project ( and personally coded and made the basic architecture on which it stands today. He contributed extensively to Wikipedia and later co-owned – the site that converted the concept of bulletin boards (which predates modern internet) into one massive news and information link sharing site.

He was one of the developers who first wrote Rich Site Summary (RSS) feeds – the technology that is now omnipresent and which everything from personal blogs and galleries to portals of large news corporations on to mobile apps, e-readers, on-screen tickers, depends on.

In 2006, he did what will be remembered as one of the best bloodless coups in the history of document sharing. The US Library of Congress, one of the world’s finest and biggest archives has a strange chink in its policy. Since it’s a government project, the documents it houses are not copyrighted. But it charges a fee for access. What Aaron did was he paid for his own access and then released huge volumes of documents outside. That way he didn’t violate any laws and yet achieved his aim.

He later trained his eyes on academic papers and decided to release a huge cache of academic papers locked in JSTOR – a pay-for-access archival system used to store scholarly articles and papers on a wide variety of subjects. He is said to have downloaded millions of academic journals with a view to make it available on P2P (torrent) sites for free distribution.

An endeavour that may have cost him his life.

On January 11, 2013, Aaron was found dead in his apartment in New York.

The JSTOR case and its lessons

The JSTOR case, which can be said to have taken Aaron’s life, holds very important lessons for India which is grappling with a bourgeoning netizenry, IT laws, freedom of speech and the ideas of natural justice.

Aaron never completed his attempt at disseminating the JSTOR documents he was downloading. JSTOR people found out and stopped him. But they did not press charges against Aaron and in return Aaron did not release the papers.

But the American Department of Justice [sic] charged him with illegally entering servers and indulging in digital piracy. Now when the “victim” and the “perpetrator” agree to settle a case, that too one which does not cause direct harm to human life or tangible property, or the “criminal” does not monetarily benefit from the “theft”, it is inane for a third party like the DoJ to press charges. It is against the very concept of natural justice.

But thumbing its nose at the outrage and shock expressed by thousands at its behaviour, the DoJ hounded Aaron remorselessly. Aaron’s charges were upped many times over and he was looking at many long years of prison ahead of him.

To understand the DoJ’s behaviour we need to look at what Aaron had been doing other than downloading documents and making sharing an inseparable part of the internet’s evolution.

Aaron was a political activist and major proponent of online freedom. He was instrumental in organising and addressing major protests across the US against anti-piracy laws and other laws that looked to curb sharing on the internet. He was a major voice in the movement to oppose Stop Online Piracy Act which was “[a] bill that sought to monitor the Internet for copyright violations and would have made it easier for the US government to shut down websites accused of violating copyright”. Though dressed in the clothes of anti-piracy sheep, hundreds and thousands of websites across the globe including mega names like Wikipedia, WordPress and others went on an online strike saying SOPA was a anti-online freedom wolf.

His prodigious skills and political commitment proved a lethal combination for the American statecraft and corporations. His persecution is quite logically viewed as a rap not for things like sharing files but for standing up to the might of the powers that be. And thereafter, the remorseless persecution of Aaron was a move by those powers to tell the world that no kid is going to challenge their supremacy.

Section 66-A

Now take a moment and go back to the Mumbai case when two girls were arrested for their anti-Bal Thackeray facebook posts, or the professor from Kolkata who Mamata Banerjee and her men got arrested for posting a cartoon on facebook, and we will find an Indian analogy to Aaron’s fight.

Sec 66A of the IT Act says it is protecting the people of India from hate speech and riots caused by uncontrolled tweets, posts and emails (DoJ/FBI/Hollywood/publishing houses claim to protect the rights of artists, writers, singers et al when they talk of stopping piracy). And the Indian State seeks ready support for its legislation in pointing out abusers of freedom (anti-piracy in America is justified by pointing at underpaid actors, artists et al).

But we don’t buy the government’s excuses. We look at the larger picture and we know exactly where the legislations are headed. And we know that one of the Mumbai girls’ uncle’s hospital was vandalised and they were arrested by the police because the Shiv Sena needed to send out the message that no kid with a facebook account dare crack the Bal Thackeray-sized sculpture of fear which is used to run Mumbai. The Jadavpur University professor’s arrest was to send out the message that you don’t poke easy fun at the “Supremo” of Bengal and get away with it. Legislations like Sec 66A are a tool to achieve that objective of instilling fear into netizens and harassing the life out of those who dare to stand up.

As Member of Parliament P Rajeev, the lone consistent voice against the IT Act in the Parliament, recently said about 66A, “What we are seeing is not an abuse of 66A. It is its intended use”.

Multiple upsurges against the Indian IT Act have shown most of us netizens know the government’s intentions. Their glib talk has few takers. However the response Aaron’s death invoked in India is worrying.

Indian Media/Social Media’s non-response

One can’t expect our regional channels to report anything beyond their state borders, nor can we expect Hindi news channels to go much beyond garish attention-seeking headlines. As days pass, the nation has stopped expecting sensible news from English-speaking channels as well. In any case, their international news is mostly limited to snippets from their main international investor. So, Indian news channels reporting on Aaron Swartz was pretty much out of question.

English newspapers, with the notable exception of The Times Of India, tend to be many degrees saner in their choice of news and pitch of rhetoric and give decent space to international news. But they too have seriously under-reported Aaron’s death and the events leading up to it. Of the national editions, barring The Hindu, no English speaking daily gave much (or any) detail about Aaron’s work, activism and circumstances of death.

India is a nation in the grip of a fierce public debate about online freedom, unrestricted and regulated free speech and its effects on our plural and dynamic democracy, and where information technology forms a big part of public debates when it comes to the English media. Therefore there seems to be no conceivable reason as to why something as significant as the death of Aaron Swartz should be so underreported.

If it is because they don’t realise the newsworthiness or significance of the episode, then their judgment (one which they liberally use across op-eds on free speech) is in need of urgent help. If it is a deliberate omission, then clearly we have an even more serious issue at hand.

What is perhaps even more disturbing is the manner in which Indian facebook and Twitter remained silent to Aaron’s death. From anti-corruption crusades to anti-rape protests, we’ve been hitting the cyber streets with unparalleled enthusiasm. The June 9, 2012 coordinated DDoS attacks by Anonymous India on government sites and private ISPs like Reliance who are guilty of blocking internet traffic and the response it generated among the netizenry; the upsurge against 66A after the Mumbai incident which saw coordinated all-India agitations both online and on the streets; the targeting of Kapil Sibal for his villainous zeal in implementing the IT Act – all suggested that the Indian net users were aware of the significance of online freedom. The manner in which Twitter and FB were leveraged during the mega anti-rape demonstrations that brought India’s mighty, their media, police and snoops to their knees, had us all convinced that the power of online sharing was real and forceful.

Then why this silence about Aaron? When, as a tribute to Aaron, academics all over the world were uploading their research work free making #pdftribute why did we not do it in India like we did for Nirbhaya/Damini, 66A, Sibal and so on?

If it’s the case that we simply didn’t know much about Aaron and his work, then we have on our hands a serious problem – that we as netizens are as yet a flimsy uninformed lot, and trolls and smart alecs far outnumber activists and true believers of online freedom. We will then have to ask if we really are a radical mass of young Indians who are braving the State and its harshness and practicing radical democracy, or merely a mobocracy doing in the cyberworld what the Marathi Senas and mindless lackeys of Didi do on the streets of Mumbai and Kolkata respectively. If we ask these questions and find ourselves guilty, then we lend credence to the Congress Party led contention that we don’t know how to handle our freedom and hence don’t deserve it.

If it’s a case that we knowingly ignored Aaron’s death and stuck to our pet peeves, then we have yet another serious problem at hand – that of being dishonest in our pursuit of freedom of speech and online freedom.

During the anti-66A protests some sections went far enough to say they wanted to replicate the American (libertarian) concept of unconditional free speech. Now let us take a moment to note that Aaron’s death comes despite the legislated American guarantee of unbridled freedom of speech, both online and off it. His persecution until death comes from the fact that he had struck the System’s even more fundamental aspects – ones that are connected to revenue systems and orders of socio-economic control and order. He was actively preaching and implementing a dangerous idea that private ownership, even if digital and creative, needs to be replaced with “commons”. He was fighting to bridge the gap between digital haves and have-nots. And the fight for online freedom in America is inseparable from their fight against the system and the exploitative world order where corporations are masters.

Question is, can ours be? If we fight for online freedom and close our eyes to Aaron’s fight against proprietary ownership and digital “commons”, aren’t we being hypocrites?



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Contribute Your Views
  • Ruma

    Agree with Roy that the Indian netizens did not show as much respect as they should have to Aaron Swartz. Swartz was clearly a pioneer and super hacker. It wont be wrong to say that he truly “sharing”.


    Good article. I’m sharing it.

  • Aaron is a very big loss to world of hacktivism.. It is the fighters like Piratebay, Kim Dotcom (Megaupload fame), Anonymous, Julian Assange who are keeping the internet free and as it is. A big salute to these fighters of freedom.. otherwise it would had been controlled by powers and corporate mafia as Radio, TV, Newspaper were. Piracy, copyright blabber is again a big sham to control artists and information.

  • Aaron Swartz’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

    Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.


  • Pritam Singh

    My compliments to the author for highlighting this!

  • vasanthi

    If the social media, and the media at large was silent, then its also because, Aaron swartz was not a popular and known figure like say a Mark Zuckerberg. For the media, it would have been just too much effort, first educating the viewer about the person, what he stood for, what the US did etc etc. I guess it was less hypocrisy, more ignorance.

  • Riddhima Banerjee

    Very well written. Very pertinent points

  • Ayyappan

    Excellent Article. Kudos!

  • kurian

    an awesome article…