By Jamison Maeda
One year ago, the world lost a champion in the struggle for freedom of information. Aaron Swartz was a passionate activist for social justice and internet freedom. Though just a kid, his contemporaries considered him a hero and a wise elder.
Aaron helped create the RSS news feed format, and he cofounded Reddit, an information sharing website. He also launched the organization Demand Progress which was essential in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act that opponents considered government controlled censorship and a major threat to free speech.
But in 2011, Aaron was arrested for downloading academic journals he wanted to make available to the public.
US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz and prosecutor Stephen Heymann launched a vicious case against Aaron for breaking university rules on downloading and threatening Aaron with decades in federal prison and millions of dollars in criminal fines. After two grueling years of relentless persecution by Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann, Aaron comitted suicide. He was 26 years old.
Immediately after Aaron’s death, a petition with over 50,000 signatures for the removal of Ortiz from office was sent to the White House. She has been accused of using this case as publicity for her campaign for Governor of Massachusetts and has recieved widespread criticism from US congressmen, judges and former prosecutors. A letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility has also been submitted, accusing prosecutor Stephen Heymann of prosecutorial misconduct.
On the day of Aaron’s funeral Ortiz’s husband, Thomas J. Dolan, posted a message on Twitter saying “Truly incredible in their own son’s obit they blame other’s for his death.” Assumably Mr Dolan is now aware that in addition to Aaron’s parents, hundreds of thousands of people around the world also blame Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann for Aaron’s death.
Aaron fought for freedom of information and lost his life. The public was outraged and lawmakers went to work on inquiries and writing legislation to prevent such a travesty from reoccuring.
But history repeats itself as the US government now pursues a case against Edward Snowden. Snowden leaked documents about the US National Security Agency spying on innocent citizens and foreign officials. Since Snowden brought this unregulated surveillance to light, public outrage has spread to the over 60 countries currently under surveillance by US and the UK.
The US government claims Snowden’s revelations have threatened military operations and the war against terror. This is false. Edward Snowden repeatedly stated he carefully selected the documents given to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian. They exposed the spying on of innocent people, not military operations. Greenwald says no documents containing information on military operations have been or will be published. For any politician to state that Edward Snowden endangered troops is just an attack on Snowden’s character in an attempt to tarnish his image and shift focus away from the NSA.
Russell Tice, former NSA analyst claims he knew of surveilance years ago of then senator Barack Obama and a current US Supreme Court Judge. Tice says he was fired by the NSA in 2005 for asking Congress to provide protection for whistle-blowers.
Snowden is currently exiled in Russia for raising awareness, and calling for transparency and accurate information about who is listening to our phone calls and reading our texts and emails. But the real threat to national security is the bugging of offices and the tapping of phones of foreign officials, particularly US allies who now question the intents of the American government.
The villian here is not Edward Snowden, and it is certainly not Aaron Swartz who only wanted to prevent internet censorship and provide access to taxpayer funded, academic information to the public, particularly the poor.
In an interview with Ruairí McKiernan, Aaron Swarz said “I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just kind of take what you’re given and follow the things that adults told you to do…I think you should always be questioning.”
We must continue questioning, and we are obligated to protect whistle-blowers and the people who sacrifice everything to bring us information. Without these men and women who provide us with information about our governments and elected officials, we will soon watch our freedom of speech and our access to infomation deteriorate.
A film by Brian Knappenberger called “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Aaron Swartz Story” will premier at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
Edward Snowden is currently under temporary asylum in Russia which will expire this summer. The US has rejected his appeal for clemency.