Seven days ago, Aaron Swartz hung himself and was found dead in his New York apartment.
He was a thin, pleasant-looking young man with a soft beard, a shy smile, and a medium-length hair. He usually put on a t-shirt and jeans pants. He looked like other “digital” activists and new media prodigies and was indeed one of their best and most courageous. His genius started to come to being at the age of 14 when he developed the RSS protocol, the set of formats used for publishing blogs on the internet. But the most important part of his short life was his struggle for freedom of knowledge and against all government attempts at controlling internet content. In this struggle, he did not just talk, but sacrificed his personal interests and sometimes his freedom in order to defend the values he believed in.
He had not yet reached the age of 26 when he decided to end his life in such a tragic manner. He most probably committed suicide because he faced criminal charges and could have ended up with a 50-year jail sentence and a four-billion-dollar fine.
Those who do not know what this young man achieved and who read about his trial might think he committed a grave offence. In fact, his “offence” was about downloading scholarly articles from academic journals in order to make them available for everyone for free. That is why he was sued by academic and official bodies. He was known for his internet freedom activism and his campaign called Demand Progress played a major role in the demands that the Congress take back a series of controversial legislations that aim at combating electronic piracy.
In our part of the world, activists are killed and imprisoned for speaking their minds. In the United States, Aaron Swartz anticipated the dangers of the monopoly of knowledge and the use of technology to reach that end.
Swartz was reportedly frightened that knowledge would be eventually available in a digital form only and therefore would not be accessible to the pubic. Imagine that 20 years from now only digital versions of all books and magazines were available and paper publications disappeared. What if there are no more libraries in which books can be read? What if we need to pay in order to read? What if we do not have enough money to obtain this knowledge? Is there a better way for confiscating and blocking knowledge? What is the ideal way of controlling the masses and making sure only they only get certain permissible information other than confining knowledge to the digital world?
These were Swartz’s apprehensions and it seems he realized early on that he would lose his battle for freedom of knowledge, so he decided to kill himself.
*This article was first published in Asharq AlAwsat on Jan. 17, 2013. Link: http://www.aawsat.com/leader.asp?section=3&article=713485&issueno=12469
(Diana Moukalled is the Web Editor at the Lebanon-based Future Television and was the Production & Programming Manager with at the channel. Previously, she worked there as Editor in Chief, Producer and Presenter of “Bilayan al Mujaradah,” a documentary that covers hot zones in the Arab world and elsewhere, News and war correspondent and Local news correspondent. She currently writes a regular column in AlSharq AlAwsat. She also wrote for Al-Hayat Newspaper and Al-Wasat Magazine, besides producing news bulletins and documentaries for Reuters TV. She can be found on Twitter: @dianamoukalled.)