January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz suicide and the "JSTOR" case

The facts: "Aaron Swartz commits suicide": "Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City yesterday, Jan. 11 ..."

Others can write eulogies. I'm not good at that. Forgive me for not doing a personal remembrance in this post - it's an area where my writing skills fail me. I must take refuge in a certain distance.

I've been trying to articulate why I think his death had deeper implications than intrinsic personal tragedy. Maybe it's too soon to take that up. Too political, too distracting now. I know the moment I start writing about my view that his prosecution for various felony charges in the "JSTOR" case was a key cause, I'll get a backlash. People will say, you can't know that for sure (right - that I can't prove it doesn't stop me from thinking it's true). His other problems have been mentioned in many discussions (however, combinations of factors still mean each one was a contributor). They'll be an argument that the law can't take into account such stress on a defendant (even if so, the effect is still real).

But I've read through almost all the case documents, and it felt to me like the prosecution was doing their best to make an example of him. And that was going to harm his life even if he was eventually acquitted (after a long grueling ordeal which would cost a fortune and take a huge emotional toll). It's the sort of situation where even if you win, you still lose in many ways.

Maybe I'll say more later. Or maybe there isn't any more for me to say.


By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 12, 2013 09:02 AM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (1)
January 01, 2013

Old Year's Disillusions 2012

New Year's Resolutions are a tradition of listing things in the next year you would like to do - but (realistically) you know that you won't (I think there should also be a tradition of "Dissolutions", things you actually did do in the past year, and wish you hadn't - but that's another topic, for a different type of blogger). I'm going to turn it around, and list "Disillusions", a few items I would have liked to have done, but couldn't.

Every so often I think about writing out some of my thoughts on the activism strategy in Lawrence Lessig's "Republic, Lost" anti-corruption efforts. I agree with him overwhelming in terms of the general topic of the corrupting influence of money in politics. However, when it comes to proposed solutions, there's a set of patterns which are very common and well-worn. For example, the Work Within The System types constantly argue with The Outsiders (or at least those who style themselves that way - some outsiders are too far away socially to even argue with "liberal" reformers). And thus, recursively, I fear I'd be falling into one of the bad patterns myself, the Pundit Pontificator. That's useless, and for me, dangerous. It's useless because anything of the form "I agree with your goals but not your tactics" is one of the oldest cliches of activism. And it's dangerous for me as I'm not at the power-level to argue at any sort of reasonably risk/reward ratio. Moreover, it doesn't seem like there's any great need for me to say anything. Lessig might even end up eventually shifting via the Ignored Insider pattern (where reformers become more radical after years of contention with other insiders). Being too early in politics is another endemic risk, with no rewards.

During the fight over the proposed "SOPA" law for new copyright enforcement powers, I blogged a few times about being torn over the ends-vs-means dilemma. I opposed SOPA, but the tactics used against it were extremely manipulative (yes, politics, that's the point). Then there was another UN-to-take-over-the-Internet manufactured panic. That last moved Marc Rotenberg, president of Electronic Privacy Information Center (a dedicated organization that doesn't get corporate sugar-daddying) to write

But where once advocacy efforts were aligned with international human rights instruments and decoupled from the lobbying efforts of particular companies, increasingly the debate over Internet freedom is one that pits governments against large corporations, with the advocates in tow.

I'm glad he said it. Somebody needed to. I'm disheartened by the extent of the transformation of Internet civil liberties advocacy into corporate liberties advocacy via application of that's-where-the-money-is. However, I'm not going to go through that battle again myself. Once was enough.

Wikipedia still fascinates me, even though I've basically given up on getting policy people to think about the points I've made about its dysfunctional dynamics and being a creature of Google's page-ranking algorithm. I found the Philip Roth Wikipedia controversy (about his inspiration for a novel) extremely revealing about one aspect I keep noting, the status hierarchy differences between experts and Wikipedia editors (i.e. the different worldview between Roth, etc. vs extensive Wikipedia contributors about who is high-status and who is low-status, which group should defer to the other). But there was a large amount of nastiness flying about, I believe exactly because of the hierarchy difference being in such stark relief over such a prominent literary figure. I decided not to stick my head into that storm. Roth hardly needs me to defend him, while enduring the attacks of Wikipedian flamers just didn't seem worth it for something which wasn't going to have any effect.

Anyway, Happy New Year, especially to anyone who is still reading down here way under the tail.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism | on January 01, 2013 05:44 PM | (Infothought permalink) | Comments (2)