Aaron Swartz’s ‘crime’ was in keeping with Jewish valuesby rabbi jon sommer
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On Jan. 11, 26-year-old Internet activist and Harvard fellow Aaron Swartz committed suicide. Aaron’s fight and his death are a landmark moment in the developing frontier of digital information. It’s an arena in which new moral and legal questions are continually raised.
As public use of the Internet grows, Judaism has developed its own body of response literature (responsa) addressing some of those concerns. Aaron’s death elevates these considerations to a new level with what might be one of the first fatalities in the struggle for Internet rights and access.
It appears that Aaron, by virtue of his activism, was pursued by over-reaching federal prosecutors who threatened him with 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for what was, in effect, an act of conscience. His legal battle left him with a broken spirit, facing financial ruin.
Aaron, who attended Stanford as a freshman before leaving after one year, long argued that the nonprofit JSTOR, an online academic database, had no moral right to restrict access to millions of documents spanning centuries of knowledge and research. These documents, he believed, were humanity’s heritage. This priceless material was walled off from those who could not afford to pay JSTOR’s fees. As an act of protest, Aaron downloaded 4 million of those documents through a controlled-access wiring closet at MIT.
Whether Aaron’s action rose to the level of a crime is an open question. However, his motivation and ideals are, I believe, grounded in the best of our tradition. Consider Isaiah 1:16-17: “Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” This passage has been interpreted as a call for compassion for those who are disadvantaged. Aaron asserted that because of JSTOR’s policies, people studying in less developed or impoverished regions, such as India and Africa, were prevented from learning from these invaluable resources.
Similarly, Leviticus 23:22 instructs us not to reap the corners of our fields so that the poor may partake. This has been interpreted to mean that we are not permitted to hoard all for ourselves, but must share with those who are less fortunate. Aaron acted firmly in the spirit of this interpretation.
Aaron’s fight is also emblematic of a core value extolled by Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, who stated we need to learn from all sources of knowledge, regardless of origin. The Rambam was referring not only to Jewish sources, but Islamic and Greek texts. If he were alive today and used the parlance of the Internet, he might well have employed the term “open access.” Aaron understood this to mean that regardless of financial means, one should benefit from the world’s intellectual heritage. In fact, Maimonides’ vision of righteousness and human perfection was one in which individuals could learn unfettered, unrestricted, and undisturbed. This was Aaron’s goal for the future of the Internet.
Unfortunately, Aaron did not receive fair treatment under the law. The concept of “an eye for an eye,” sometimes referred to as the lex talionis, is interpreted in Jewish tradition to mean proportional judgment. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz took the reductionist attitude that “stealing is stealing.”
Stealing, however, is not always just stealing: not in the Jewish halachic (legal) tradition, not in the American judicial system, and all the more so not in the domain of the Internet where the word “authorization” as a legal term d’art concerning access is notoriously hard to define. Several prominent legal scholars agree that Aaron’s download of the documents falls very much within a gray area of the law concerning authorization of access.
As a student of Jewish thought, I treasure a tradition that values examination, exploration, and nuance of reasoning. The prosecutors in this case apparently did not. To its credit, JSTOR decided not to pursue the case. But MIT remained ambivalent, and thus the prosecution moved forward.
Sadly, only days before Aaron died, JSTOR finally announced that it would release more than 4.5 million of its articles for free, with some restrictions.
While Aaron was known to suffer from clinical depression, his friend and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig astutely observed that in this instance Aaron was “rationally depressed,” given the circumstances. He seemed to exemplify Spinoza’s observation that “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Aaron fought a difficult battle, yet possessed excellent and rare qualities that he used to further good on the Internet. He desired to maximize its benefit for all and fought against those who sought to restrict its potential for their own financial gain. Whether he was conscious of it or not, I believe Aaron applied some of the best of Jewish ethics to this new and expanding frontier.
Rabbi Jon Sommer works with the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco, offering spiritual care to people who are ill, dying, bereaved or living with mental illness.
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