"Truth, Justice and the American Way"


The boy, Aaron Swartz, took his own life at the age of twenty-six a mere thirteen years after this picture was taken. The man, Lawrence Lessig, grieves and rages at the prosecutorial bullying that drove his young friend and collaborator to suicide.

Those of us in the public diplomacy community should care about this case for many reasons. Like Lessig, Aaron Swartz was an internet freedom pioneer. As a child, he gave us the RSS that allows us to track topics of interest on the web. Sitting here on my sandbar in Florida, I can still feel connected to the public diplomacy community around the world because my RSS feed brings me your news. If you are interested in my musings, RSS can bring them to you as well.

I remember as Counselor of USIA, fighting off the State Department's first grab for the Agency early in the Clinton Administration. We won that round, in part, by arguing that public diplomacy believes that information is power when you share it; use it to connect, inform and influence if you can. While the State Department at the time saw information as power if you controlled it; if you had information that others did not have. We believed in the public use of information; State held its information privately. Our incompatible operating philosophies, we argued, would not be conducive to a merger. As Nick Cull documents in his new history of The Decline and Fall of USIA, we finally lost the argument on the last day of September 1999.

The consolidation of USIA into State was muffling America's official information outreach just as the new age of open information was loudly dawning.  Then fourteen year old Aaron Swartz was a member of the working group that created RSS 1.0 to open the flood gates of information online. In some respects, Aaron Swartz had the soul and the operating philosophy of a public diplomacy officer. Listen to him:

His short life was about making information more accessible, making sharing and collaborating on-line easier.  The technical genius that gave us RSS when he was a child continued his contributions to the public good.  As David Weinberger, a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society wrote:

Aaron went on to make serious contributions to Creative Commons (an organization that releases licenses so authors can let their work be more easily reused), Open Library (a public library of online works), Reddit (an immensely popular open discussion forum), Markdown (a simple way to write Web pages),web.py (making it easier for developers to create Web applications), Jottit.com (type-and-post website) and much more.

Unlike those engaged in public diplomacy however, in pursuit of his policy objectives, Swartz was apparently willing to engage in civil disobedience and break laws that limit access to information. It was his alleged action to liberate academic articles held by JSTOR that brought down the wrath of the U.S. government upon him. He had explained his purpose in an earlier Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. He wrote in part:

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

Swartz' willingness to pursue unlawful means to share information is what sets him apart from the work of those engaged in public diplomacy. His internet freedom agenda was not the same as that articulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but the kinship is striking. Are the words she used at the News Museum in 2010 that different from his in the interview above? She said,

 We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas. And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it. Now, this challenge may be new, but our responsibility to help ensure the free exchange of ideas goes back to the birth of our republic. The words of the First Amendment to our Constitution are carved in 50 tons of Tennessee marble on the front of this building. And every generation of Americans has worked to protect the values etched in that stone. 

Pfc. Bradley Manning made mockery of those words when he dumped his treasure trove of classified documents onto Wikileaks within a year of Secretary Clinton's Internet Freedom  speech. By doing so he placed America's diplomats and their interlocutors at risk and triggered his own arrest on charges of “aiding the enemy.”

Swartz' act of civil disobedience in liberating the JSTOR database while using guest access privleges at MIT was a far cry from the treasonous behavior alleged against Pfc. Manning whose trial is now set for June 3, 2013. Yet as a Manning supporter, Swartz had to have known that his own political activism would have its costs. As Orin Kerr writes on the The Volokh Conspiracy:

To my mind, this is one of the puzzles about Swartz. On one hand, he was deeply committed to civil disobedience and to the moral imperative of breaking unjust laws. On the other hand, he seems to have had his soul crushed by the prospect that he would spend time in jail. This is an unusual combination. Usually the decision to engage in civil disobedience comes along with a willingness to take the punishment that the law imposes.

Perhaps he would have been willing to pay a price proportional to the alleged crime. We will never know because the Department of Justice -- seeing his kinship with Bradley Manning, rather than Hillary Clinton -- charged him on 13 counts, including wire fraud and theft of information carrying the potential penalty of up to 35 years of jail. With a trial ironically schedlued for April 1, 2013 and a plea bargain effort dead, Aaron Swartz chose death. As the Economist said in a touching obituary, Aaron Swartz could accept death as he wrote in 2002, 

 as long as all the contents of his hard drives were made publicly available, nothing deleted, nothing withheld, nothing secret, nothing charged for; all information out in the light of day, as everything should be.

                          R.I. P. Aaron Swartz November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013

Except where otherwise noted, all original work produced by Donna Oglesby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License