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Viewpoint: Justice failed for Swartz

By Derek Wolfe, Senior Editorial Page Editor
Published January 15, 2013

The world is small, but the Internet makes the world infinitely smaller. This became even more apparent to me when I learned of the recent Jan. 11 suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz. He was prosecuted by the federal government for downloading nearly four-million articles from the online academic journal database, JSTOR, which charges extremely high fees for scholarly articles. Unfortunately, the possibility of a 35-year prison sentence proved too much for Swartz to bear.

Swartz is a testament to the importance of Internet freedom. Despite his huge impact on the Internet, he’s much less famous than Mark Zuckerberg, who’s constantly criticized for the ever-changing privacy settings of Facebook.

Swartz was a co-founder of Reddit, a site where users post thousands of articles, videos and pictures with the hope that others will find them of interest. Over this past winter break, I became a more active Reddit user, posting a couple of links daily. While it was quite humbling to realize that my humor may not be consistent with the rest of the world, I was reminded how awesome it is to share and converse with others in a society that’s dominated and funded by the wealthy — an indisputable fact regardless of party affiliation. Not to say we’re oppressed people, but the fact that the government pursued Swartz for trying to release documents that arguably should have been public in the first place is troubling.

The amazement generated by websites like Reddit is where our society’s problems lie. Why should sites like Reddit, which promote the interaction of people, be considered a triumph? Shouldn’t they be an expectation?

I, like many others, spend a lot of time on the Internet and have noticed the huge influence of large corporations clouding the web. Seriously, how annoying is it to be forced to watch a 45-second advertisement in order to watch a one-minute online video?

Of course, I didn’t know Swartz; however, I feel like he would’ve hated big companies shelling out millions of dollars to advertise, considering censorship would surely follow suit. Swartz was also strongly against the Stop Online Piracy Act that galvanized national debate in 2012. When the bill was ultimately shot down he said, “It was really stopped by the people; the people themselves — they killed the bill dead.” It was clear then that Swartz valued the power of the masses and the ability the Internet has to rally everyone together.

Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian summed up the significance of Swartz’s life and the state of our society nicely in a Jan. 12 article.

He said, “Swartz was destroyed by a ‘justice’ system that fully protects the most egregious criminals as long as they are members of or useful to the nation's most powerful factions, but punishes with incomparable mercilessness and harshness those who lack power and, most of all, those who challenge power.”

I had never heard of Swartz before his death. At first the only reason I found it of interest was because I like the website he helped create. But after reading more about him I learned that he’s considered a modern day civil rights activist who fought hard for the sanctity and purity of the Internet. He cherished the public good and remains important despite his lack of fame.

What needs to be taken away from his life, however, is that we should not take our freedom, especially on the Internet, for granted. Because the reality is that there are people out there who are trying to take it away from us. The Internet connects people — we need to keep it that way.

Derek Wolfe is an LSA freshman.