Partial Transcript: Episode 33 (The death of Aaron Swartz)

Andrew: Maybe we should go into the backstory…

Virginia: Is there anyone listening who doesn’t know the story?

Nick: So, Aaron Swartz was a super genius.  One of those people who everyone agrees is a genius.

Mike: If fact, if you’re listening to us, you’re doing so partly because of Aaron.  He contributed to RSS, which is how many of you get our feed.

Andrew: He was a big proponent of information freedom.

Nick: Open information.  Getting information that is already public but isn’t easy to access more readily available to the public.

Andrew: There’s a lot of stuff that was in the public domain but was locked down.

Virginia: The example of that would be PACER, which is the government’s answer to bankruptcy and court documents.  I have a PACER account that I used to research stuff.  They charge you ten cents a search and ten cents per page.  If you want to download anything that’s more than a couple hundred pages, you end up with huge fees.

Andrew: That’s crazy.  Ten cents for a simple query is outrageous.

Virginia: For the sake of fairness, I will say that if you spend less than $15 per quarter, they don’t charge you.  But, still.  That’s quite a lot of documents that you can’t access with paying.  His answer to this was a Firefox add-on called “RECAP.”  You can use this browser add-on.  It will catalog what you buy and add it to their database for other people to use.

Nick: Not only did he create that, he also invested his own money into getting information in the database.  That’s one great thing he’s done.  The second is RSS.  The third is that he was a big force in stopping SOPA.

Andrew: You had people from both parties co-signing the bill.  It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it was going to pass.

Nick: Aaron said that it was wrong and got enough support to push legislators to reject the bill.  That’s probably his biggest claim to fame.

Andrew: The unfortunate thing is that Aaron committed suicide.  I think it’s largely due to the fact that the US government tried to make an example out of him.

Nick: Let’s be fair.  A bunch of his friends have said that he battled depression.  But, the guy’s young.  He’s 26.

Virginia: I don’t think any of us feel like depression wasn’t an issue.

Nick: It’s something that the news outlets are glossing over.  It took me a few articles to figure out that no one was beating down his door other than the prosecutors.

Virginia: It wasn’t like the swat team broke in an forced him…

Nick: Yeah.

Andrew: So, the charges were for hacking.  He was basically taking research papers that he had legitimate access to.

Nick: He hid a laptop in a closet using MIT’s open network to download JSTOR articles.  That’s all he had done.  He did not publish any of them.  In fact, he gave them all back through a civil suit.  I read lawyers saying that, if everything they are saying is true, he did something wrong.

Andrew: But they wanted to make an example out of him.  The prosecutor was trying to get as much as they could.  He would looking at decades in jail.  It’s ridiculous.  He put a laptop in a closet, and he downloaded some information.  He wasn’t hacking military secrets.  He didn’t steal credit card data.  He was downloading research data so that he could spread it to other people..

Nick: Even that’s speculation.  All we know is that he was downloading it.

Andrew: It’s not even top secret data.  It was all published, it was just behind a pay wall.

Mike: And a lot of it is really old stuff.  Like from the 1900’s.

Nick: And it’s published to a nonprofit whose mission is to spread this information.

Virginia: And who also had a huge profit margin and charges $30 for a 10-page PDF that costs pennies to store in a database.

Andrew: For this, they want to throw him in jail for 50 years!  That’s a lot of pressure.  If I was at his end of these charges, that’s pretty scary.

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