Barack Obama and the suicide of computer genius Aaron Swartz: Time for Presidential peacemaking in the online copyright wars

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Aaron_Swartz_2_at_Boston_Wikipedia_Meetup,_2009-08-18_After Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an African-American Harvard professor, was erroneously arrested for breaking and entering, Barack Obama spoke up. The President at first overdid his criticism of the police, but in the end played the meritable role of peacemaker, inviting both Prof. Gates and the arresting policeman to the White House for a “Beer Summit.” In time, Sgt. James Crowley even gave Prof. Gates a pair of the handcuffs used on the professor. Now President Obama should help make peace in a separate Cambridge case and consider another “Beer Summit,” in fact a whole series—between copyright lobbyists and America’s librarians, educators and consumer activists.

Dead in the copyright wars is Aaron H. Swartz (above photo), the 26-year-old computer genius, RSS coauthor, Reddit cofounder and information-access activist who apparently hanged himself in Brooklyn while facing a possible prison term of up to 35 years and a possible $1-million fine for alleged computer-related offenses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Beer_summit_cheersI won’t say here if Swartz was guilty under current law; I’ll instead refer you to some highly nuanced comments from Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig. What is clear is that legal actions against the widely admired Swartz were too severe for the circumstances and that the copyright industries have been generous donors to the Obama campaign, among many others within both major parties. Significantly, JSTOR, a nonprofit that houses the scientific and literary journals to which Swartz allegedly obtained illegal access, decided against pursuing civil charges. Swartz never sought to enrich himself financially through his activism over the years; rather, to liberate information for the advancement of knowledge and well-informed civic debate, which current copyright laws so often can crimp.

nypostHere’s how President Obama should respond as a peacemaker. First, the President should immediately apologize to Swartz’s parents, who correctly described his death as "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death." Surely no one in President Obama’s Justice Department wanted Swartz to die. But from Attorney General Eric Holder on down, Obama appointees there unwittingly set the tone for what followed.

I wonder if today people in the department are aware of Aaron Swartz’s blog post headlined A Moment Before Dying, where he told of the severe depression of a character named “Alex.” What’s more, in 2007, he wrote of feeling sick and thinking of suicide. Did Justice know of that one, and if so, when? Swartz hanged himself on January 11, 2013, and if an MIT blogger was right about the authorities apprehending him on January 6, 2011, the suicide came disturbingly close to the anniversary. In apologizing to Swartz’s parents, Obama in effect would be reaching out to the hacker community and Internet advocates in general and letting them know he would reconsider the appropriateness of present copyright laws and enforcement. Not only would he show compassion, but also political savvy here—given many Democrats’ reliance on Internet-smart activists, not just millions from copyright-related industries. Obama should remember how the Republicans bungled away the Hispanic vote. Long term, advocacy of Draconian copyright laws will be a time-bomb for both parties as the number of digital natives grows, but especially for the Democrats, who so often have been the main beneficiaries of the related donations. “Out of options,” Swartz wrote in his last blog entry in a reference to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, “it’s no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide,” and appropriately or not, the quote has gone viral in the context of Swartz’s very real suicide.

Second, at the first of the Beer Summits, Barack Obama should offer specifics in favor of the mitigation of overdone copyright laws, especially the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which, in some cases, gave us copyright terms of up to 120 years—an attack on schools and libraries, as well as a promoter of confrontations between copyright holders and other citizens. Without massive campaign donations over the decades, would terms be as long?

Third, President should work toward two well-stocked national digital library systems, one serving public library-related needs and the other serving rather different academic needs, with both universally accessible and with both sharing countless gigabytes of data and intertwining in other ways (I originally wanted one system but grew to understand how two would be better).

Yes, so far I’ve sounded somewhat down on copyright holders. But here is the kicker—something to show that I in fact am recommending Beer Summits fair to both sides, not an attack on the basic concept of copyright. I actually feel that the total our country spends on intellectual property, at least in the case of library-style items, is shockingly less than it should be. Just .2 percent of the average American household’s budget goes for books and other reading, not because books and the rest are so cheap but because typical families don’t buy enough of them; clearly the industry is in dire need of new business models. So let’s work toward a Library-Publisher Complex, a way for publishers to benefit from the public’s sympathies toward libraries and actually come out far, far ahead financially. With more information, analysis and culture out there for free, we would not just smarten up the country but also deescalate the copyright wars and honor Aaron Swartz’s noble intentions along the way.

January 14, 4:45 a.m.: President Obama would do well to read comments from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, who, beyond expressing his condolences over Swartz’s death, wants the university to reexamine its legal actions. Ideally the President can show similar thoughtfulness.

Credit: New York Post image spotted at TeleRead, which has reproduced this commentary.

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