“One day you will ask me which is more important? My life or yours? I will say mine and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life.” ― Khalil Gibran.
The system has claimed a victim pushed to the age by the functionaries and votaries of the legal establishment in America. It is sad that the dedicated and pioneering computer programmer, cyber activist and social justice activist Aaron Swartz had to leave this life in order to save his life by committing suicide on Friday 11th January, 2013 at the tender age of 26. For those who do not have an inkling of who this bright young man was, let me take you back to sometime last year when you found web pages blacked out and Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales was in the Red Corner and Copyright Alliance’s Sandra Aistars was in the Blue Corner? – remember that? – well, Aaron was among those who helped organize a grassroots movement to defeat a House bill called SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and a Senate bill called PIPA, the PROTECT IP Act in the United States which sought to criminalize access to information by virtue of the mode in which you obtained it.
In the words of the United States attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, said, quote, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” In each generation, we have inspirational heroes who rise and stand up to the system and end up paying with their lives. This is a genius who in his teenage years was instrumental in the development of Really Simple Syndication (RSS), revolutionized the way and manner as to how people use the internet in better, simple and precise channels and went on to co-own Reddit now billed as one of the worlds most popular sites. He is also credited with the development of the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and built the online architecture for Open Library. Above all he propagated the right for people to connect.
Aaron took his life just weeks before he was set to go on trial for using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. Although JSTOR declined to press charges, prosecutors took over the case. Aaron Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. By the time he died, he had already been rendered penniless by this case. It is through information that we get to know events that took place before we born, of turncoats like Dr. Kilemi Mwiria who despite having been a victim of state aggression, repression and oppression in the mid 90’s (together with his fellow lecturers Korwa Adar, Nyaduwa Odhiambo, Omari Onyango and Airo Akodhe), he turned a blind eye to lecturers when they went on strike, Mutula Kilonzo the reformer was way back an agent of authoritarian rule, Tito Adungosi Aloo the idealist who paid with his life when he dared stand up to Moi. Simon Muruli’s story requires it own heading. In Kenya, the man who blew the whistle on the Goldenberg affair a Mr. Munywoki died a desolate man in Narok shunned even by friends for not “eating” during his time, seeing those who plundered the country given respect and honour by the government and society, Maoka Maore who brought to light “the scandal that never was” Anglo-Leasing is just but a byword in the history of the Kenyan republic. It is by access to information that I know that Youth for KANU ’92 was not just about Ruto or Jirongo, but Proffesors Henry Mwanzi and Eric Masinde Aseka of Kenyatta University and Chris Wanjala of Egerton University.
All along, Aaron, an original thinker fought for freedom which governments and institutions have sought and continue to seek to deny the people; he was truly a rebel with a cause – and a just cause at that. He wanted people “commons” to have unfettered access to information locked up in online vaults free of charge, with the right to download, copy freely and even modify with attribution notice. For those of us who are Wikipedians, this is what keeps us going. He talked of a battle going on in which governments want to determine and control what and when we can access information online. The world is moving at cyber speed but governments want people to remain ignorant like those in North Korea, cut from instant information on all spheres of life. These leaders want stable but not prosperous people to herd not intelligent people who will ask questions and demand answers. But we are a generation that will not sit and wait, we will and we do take charge internetically. Just imagine the domino effect the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century America would have had in the world, or the anti-war protests had Facebook would have been around back then and Robert McNamara may have found his conscience much earlier.
Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig who was Aaron’s friend of twelve years and mentor called him an “incredible, incredible soul”. For those who have and will never get a chance to meet him now that he’s dead, let us honour and cherish his legacy and memory by keeping governments and authorities on their toes. Let us be steadfast and vigilant in the face of the governments systematic resolve to keep us in check and foolish. In this age of Anonymous, Wikileaks, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, WordPress, Julian Assange, Jason Hammond, Bradley Manning and others, governments are afraid of the freedom of access to information provided by the internet because they know that they can no longer continue hiding behind the façade of Official Secretes Acts in the pretext of National Security. Hossni Mubarak former Egyptian President, Ben Ali of Tunisia (to a great extent casualties of the internet) may be alive to the fact that there is power in organized internet access and thus their surviving ilk are hell-bent on making sure that we remain foolish and contented, but we won’t, we will continue desiring, searching and Access to information is now a fundamental human right recognized by the United Nations as pronounced by none other than United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue.
Let us share information and create awareness on why the internet should be kept free and open in memory of Aaron.