November 8th: Aaron Swartz Day

It’s November 8th. I’m not even in the U.S., but it seems like the elections are all everyone is talking about. On one hand, we’ve got a xenophobic, power-hungry fascist. On the other we’ve got Trump [1].

Just kidding. But people really seem to feel they’re straight outta options. Terrified of Trump, they think that at least with Clinton, nothing’s going to change. They’ll watch the election night on the edge of their seats and chew their fingernails off in hopes that nothing is going to change, fully knowing that with all the problems on our hands, having nothing change is like keeping the car on full speed towards the edge of the cliff while saying ‘well, at least it won’t explode before we get there.’

It doesn’t sit well with me that within a system claiming to be a democracy, next to no one feels happy about who they’re voting for. It’s almost as if people didn’t have a voice.

As it happens,

multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence [2].
Did I get that right? Businesses have more rights and stronger voices than people?
It follows that the capacity for change doesn’t lie within the systems that have been created to protect the 1%. It doesn’t lie in a vote. That capacity lies with the people who seek to change the system. To subvert it, to bend and break rules that are holding us back as a society, to organise political action in order to solve problems that the 1% just don’t care about or are desperately trying to hold on to (because these problems serve their interests and fill their pockets). But who are the few people trying to change the system? We might call them hackers.

The noun “hack” has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack [3]. – Paul Graham

It’s November 8th. Aaron Swartz would be 30 today.

Aaron Swartz was a hacker and programmer, who during his teenage years helped develop RSS and Creative Commons, later became known for being a co-founder of Reddit, and then turned towards politics by becoming a spokesperson for a free Internet. He contributed to prevent two major bills in the U.S. (PiPA & SOPA) that would have literally shut down the Internet, enabling creative producers like Hollywood firms to get any site taken down that hosted copyrighted content (this includes Youtube, of course).
January 2012, SOPA/PIPA protest in NY (via flickr)

Today, I’d rather we celebrate Aaron than sit idly by and fret over the elections.

I’ve sometimes joked that Aaron Swartz was a ‘true patriot’, because he tried to radically democratise the U.S. and had a weird obsession with the founding fathers. When talking about copyright, for example, he compared today’s laws to those of the Enlightenment and claimed that innovation, as celebrated by American laws back then, would not have been possible with today’s strict insistence on copyright and persecution of bootlegging.

There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? [4]

In his blogpost Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to be Free Aaron described how the founding father would most certainly have been in favour of less strict copyright laws:

No one seriously disputes that property is a good idea, but it’s bizarre to suggest ideas should be property. (…) When I hear your idea, I gain knowledge without diminishing any of yours. In the same way, if you use your candle to light mine, I get light without darkening you [5].

In 2008, Aaron worked with a few other people on the Open Access Manifesto, a document pleading for freedom of information. The logic behind Open Access is indisputable: How much easier would it be to find solutions to the world’s biggest problems if we could give every brain on the planet access to the resources they need to work on them? Might there be a 17-year-old genius in India just missing a crucial piece of information to come up with the cure for cancer? The Internet is an opportunity to create a gigantic think-tank for humanity. Why hasn’t this happened yet?

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep 
it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, 
published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being 
digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations [6].
- Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

In 2011, Aaron wrote a program to download a large number of scientific articles from JSTOR onto a hard-drive he connected to the servers inside a closet at MIT. Even thought it remains unclear what Aaron intended to do with the extracted articles, he was arrested and charged under the ‘Computer Fraud and Abuse Act’, a law created in 1984, before the WWW even existed, that goes as far as criminalising terms of service violations (who has ever tried to read one of these?). Aaron spent some time after his arrest in solitary confinement, was put on trial and faced 35 years of jail-time.

In 2012, a year before the Snowden leaks, Aaron began to investigate the NSA, getting pulled in for interviews on live television to comment on the NSA’s refusal to come up with numbers for how many people they were spying on [7]. To anyone knowing what was going on with the NSA, it must’ve been obvious that Aaron was getting seriously dangerous.

Despite JSTORs decision to drop all charges against Aaron, federal courts kept persecuting him harshly. On 14 January 2013, due to the pressure of his trial, Aaron committed suicide.

I am deeply convinced that the charges brought against Aaron were an act of repression against his fearlessness and his vision of a more equal future, a reminder to the rest of us of what happens when you try to change the system. The people who profit off this system are scared of fearlessness, so they try to bully the fearless into submission.

When talking about surveillance and persecution of activists, you often hear people say that they’ve got nothing to hide, that this could never happen to them. Or maybe you’re thinking they’re all just Americans. But if you’re thinking this hasn’t got anything to do with Germany, I’d like you to reconsider.

This is Andrej Holm. He’s a German professor of sociology in Berlin.
via wikipedia

Because his work included terms like gentrification and precarization, he became target of the BKA and in 2007 was held in pre-trial custody, as the BKA claimed the same words had been used in a statement from a leftist terrorist group [8].

Since Edward Snowden revealed PRISM and Tempora, we know that intelligence agencies don’t only collect meta-data of our emails, chats and calls, they also collect content [9] and thus should be able to run simple algorithms to search for key terms amidst the hay-stack of data they’re collecting. If a sociology professor can become a target, who says you can’t?

This knowledge of being under surveillance has devastating effects on free speech and democracy. In fact, surveillance works much like a modern prison for the mind. The French philosopher Michel Foucault transfers Bentham’s Panopticon, the ideal prison, to social mechanisms in his 1975 book Discipline and Punish. Bentham’s Panopticon was created as a circular structure of cells surrounding a watchtower at the center of the prison. Convicts would, at least in theory, be constantly visible to the guards inside the tower and thus act as if they could be watched any given moment.

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. – Michel Foucault

In short, convicts become their own guards. In Germany we call the resulting¬†phenomenon of self-censorship the ‘mental scissors’. This is the exact opposite of the hacker mindset. For innovation and progress to happen, we need to be able to question and challenge the existing order. Understandably, this is scary to the people in power. So they try to scare us back. Is it working?

When Edward Snowden came out with the NSA leaks, risking and sacrificing both his freedom and his life, he said:

I only have one fear in doing all of this. That people will see these documents and shrug, that they’ll say, ‘we assumed this was happening and don’t care’. The only thing I’m worried about is that I’ll do all this to my life for nothing [10].

Let’s be honest, we’re all scared of change, of giving up comfort, of repression. Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden are two people who managed to throw off this fear for what they believed in.

Watch one of the Interviews with Aaron, look at the spark in his eyes, the curiosity, the wonder at discovering the world, the pleasure of explaining his thoughts, the optimism radiating off his face. Had Aaron lived, I would’ve followed this man anywhere. But knowing that he’s dead, the responsibility to change the world lies with us more than ever. Snowden took the candle from him. I lit mine. You, as you’re reading this, are lighting yours.

Maybe Aaron was like Obi Wan. Strike him down, he’ll become more powerful than ever before.

Happy Birthday, Aaron. Let’s not blow this candle out.

[1] I’m still waiting for Trump to announce he’s a comedian whose sole goal was to raise awareness for how racist this country is.

[2] Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page: (

[3] The word “Hacker” by Paul Graham:

[4] The Boy Who Could Change the World, p. 77

[5] Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to be Free

[6]  Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

[7] Swartz interview about the NSA:

[8] Andrej Holm in custody!5196250/

[9] How PRISM works

[10] No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald, p. 19


Free PGP certificates:

Aaron Swartz Documentary:

‘Killswitch’ Documentary:

featured image:,_2009-08-18.jpg

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