A few last thoughts on Aaron Swartz

Daniel Kahn Gillmor has a very good blog post. You should read it. It includes a thoughtful rebuttal to some of my earlier thoughts about activism.

I think I'm developing a richer understanding of where I see boundaries here, but after my last post, I also realized that by focusing on the specific details of what should have been a minor alleged crime, I'm derailing. Swartz did so much else. I made a note to come back to the more theoretical discussion in six months; now isn't the time. Now is the time to celebrate open content and all of the things Swartz achieved. (But thank you very much to the multiple people who have pointed out flaws in my reasoning and attempted approach.)

Hopefully, it's also an opportunity to keep the pressure on for a saner and less abusive judicial system that doesn't threaten people with ridiculous and disproportional punishment in order to terrify them into unwarranted plea bargains. The petition I mentioned has reached nearly 40,000 signatures and passed the threshold (at the time it was posted) for forcing a White House response.

Probably more importantly, it also seems to be creating the feedback cycle that I was hoping to see: the popularity of the petition is causing this story to stay in the news cycle and continue to be written about, which in turn drives more signatures to the petition. I'm not particularly hopeful that the Obama administration cares about the vast and deep problems with our criminal justice system, but I'm somewhat more hopeful that they, like most politicians, hate news cycles that they don't control. The longer this goes on, the stronger the incentive to find some way to make it go away, which could lead to real disciplinary action.

A key committee in the US House of Representatives is starting a formal investigation. One of my local representatives has proposed modifying the US federal law on computer fraud and abuse to remove violations of terms of service from the definition of the crime. (I don't have much hope that this will pass when proposed by the minority party in a fairly hostile House, but the mere act of proposing it keeps the news focus on.) Glenn Greenwald has a (typically long-winded) round-up of news in the Guardian. Note that both Greenwald and Declan McCullagh link directly to the petition in articles in mainstream news outlets.

One thing that slacktivism can do is perpetuate a news cycle until it gets more uncomfortable for people in power. It's still nowhere near as effective as the types of activism that Swartz was so good at, but in this specific case I think one gets a reasonable return on one's five-minute investment of effort.

I'm going to stop talking about this now, since other people are a lot better at this sort of post than I am. But one last link: the medical community has a related open content problem, and theirs is also killing people. Possibly people you know. If all of this has inspired you, as it has me, to care even more about open content, be watching the push for open access to clinical trial data. More background is in Ben Goldacre's TED talk.

Posted: 2013-01-16 22:03 — Why no comments?

Last modified and spun 2014-08-09