I posted this initially on Google+, but expanding on it a little here.
Sometimes the internet does do some good. Today, in memory of Aaron Swartz’s death, academics are taking time to freely “publish” their papers and make them available for the general public. You can follow the #pdftribute tag on Google+ and Twitter.
It’s a good way to help spread information that is typically free to view and read, save for either restrictions due to copyright or distribution rights. Things that were what Aaron circumvented and ended up being charge for. More details are available on the corresponding Wikipedia page.
I didn’t know much about Aaron, but the punishment just did not fit the crime. Anyone could see that. A million dollars and a 35 year jail sentence for the release of publications that were otherwise available to the [academic] public (just not as a mass archive). Academic papers that, being academic, were supposed to be for the enlightenment and education of others, not to be tucked away behind publication paywalls and restricted repositories. A punishment of this magnitude can certainly put a weight on anyone’s mind if they were being prosecuted for what was deemed an acceptable thing to do, albeit close to the line.
But this is not what bothers me the most.
It’s just unfortunate, that as usual, it took a life before this was realized. And as great as this #pdftribute movement is, it really could have made a significant difference to have done this for Aaron while he was alive. To be able to show active, not reactive support. Obviously the movement shows that a supportive community exists, but only after the fact.
This isn’t a lesson to teach to the world about Aaron and the inequities of the justice system. There will always be “Aaron”s and there will always be overzealous prosecutions. Laws can be changed and attitudes turned, but something unfortunately always needs to trigger it to actually make it happen.
No, this incident is a lesson for us.
This is a lesson to teach to us that if we continue to ignore these things as just a problem that someone else has, we’re going to end up with more reactionary efforts rather than proactive ones. We will continue to lose people that may make mistakes, but are in no way deserving of depression, punishment, or even death. It’s a problem we all have: apathy, turning the eye, someone else’s problem. Of course, I’m guilty of that to. This post is completely reactionary after all.
But this is the exact mindset that needs to change. To see an injustice and to be able to do something proactive, not reactive, about it. Tributes are fine. They’re a way to show support. But they’re often just too late. We need to be able to see what’s happening around us now and change what we can when we can to spare the need for a tribute. It’s not an easy thing since people really are often driven by damage rather than motivation. But that really needs to change.
This change in mindset, perhaps, is a much more fitting tribute for Aaron, and falls in line with what he was trying to accomplish.