in memory of Aaron Swartz

I was upset to learn about Aaron Swartz's death last week. I continue to be upset about his loss, and about our loss. He didn't just show promise of great things to come in the future -- he had already done more work for the public good than many of us will ever do. I'd only met him IRL a couple times, but (like many others) i had encountered him on the 'net in many places. He was a good person, someone i didn't need to always agree with to respect.

I read Russ Allbery's posts about Aaron and "slacktivism" with much appreciation. I had been ambivalent about signing the petition asking for the removal of the prosecutor for overreach, because I generally distrust the effectiveness of online petitions (and offline petitions, for that matter). But Russ's analysis convinced me to go ahead and sign it. The petition is concrete, clear (despite wanting a grammatical proofread), and actionable.

For people willing to go beyond petition signing to civil disobedience, The Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator is an option. It makes it straightforward to potentially violate the onerous JSTOR terms of service by re-publishing a public-domain article from JSTOR to, where it will be accessible to anyone directly.

As someone who builds and maintains information/communications infrastructure, i have very mixed feelings about most online civil disobedience, since it often takes the form of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack of some sort. DDoS attacks of public services are notoriously difficult to defend against without having huge resources to throw at the problem, so encouraging participation in a DDoS often feels a little bit like handing out cans of gasoline when you know that everyone is living in a house of straw.

However, the JSTOR Liberator is not a DDoS at all -- it's simply a facilitation of people breaking the JSTOR Terms of Service (ToS), some of the same terms that Aaron was facing charges for violating. So it is a well-targeted way to demonstrate that the prosecutions were overreaching.

I wanted to take issue with one of Russ' statements, though. In his second post about the situation, Russ wrote:

Social activism and political disobedience are important and often valuable things, but performing your social activism using other people's stuff is just rude. I think it can be a forgivable rudeness; people can get caught up in the moment and not realize what they're doing. But it's still rude, and it's still not the way to go about civil disobedience.

While i generally agree with Russ' thoughtful consideration of consent, I have to take issue with this elevation of some sort of hyper-extended property right over the moral agency that drives civil disobedience.

To use someone else's property for the sake of a just cause without damaging the property or depriving the owner of its use is not "forgivable rudeness" -- it's forgivable, laudable even, because it is just. And the person using the property doesn't need to be "caught up in the moment and not realize what they're doing" for it to be acceptable.

Civil disobedience often involves putting some level of inconvenience or discomfort on other people, including innocent people. It might be the friends and family of the activist who have to deal with the jail time; it might be the drivers stuck in a traffic jam caused by a demonstration; it might be the people forced to shop elsewhere because the store's doors are barricaded by protestors.

All of these people could be troubled by the civil disobedience more than MIT's network users and admins were troubled by Aaron's protest, and that doesn't make the protests described worse or "not the way to go about civil disobedience." The trouble highlights a more significant injustice, and in its troubling way does what it can to help right it.

Aaron was a troublemaker, and a good one. He will be missed.

Tags: aaronsw