Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Where the media stands? A summary of news coverages on Aaron Swartz's case. Guardian > Economist > NYTimes >> BBC > WSJ > Xinhua

TL;DR:  Of all the news coverage on Aaron Swartz’s case, Guardian provided the best coverage; Economist got and described the core accurately and timely;  NYTimes got the key points, but failed to follow up; BBC structured it as a “debate”; Japan’s Yomiuri and Asahi, China’s PeopleDaily had no coverage of this; WSJ is misleading its readers by associating the cause with depression; China’s Xinhua performed the worst by talking about “prevalence of depression in the tech community”.

Aaron Swartz’s funeral has come and past.  It’s time for us to move on. But before we dive into all the new year’s works, it is very important for us to review what the major newspapers around the world have said about this and use it as a gauge to see where they position themselves on this case.  Or to put it more bluntly: did they get it? Did they get the core of this case is “free access to public document” instead of IP theft, national security or suicide after long depression? 

This is important because this case won’t be the last collision between technologists who try to push the world forward and the incumbents who don’t understand technology’s role and want to set a precedent to stop this inevitable trend.   As software and AI evolve further, more labour and manual jobs will be replaced by robots and algorithms. Whether we will have a relatively smooth transition or a turmoil largely depends on how the public opinions are shaped. So far, it doesn’t look very good. As said by slate:

The underlying point … is that the government doesn’t understand hackers and isn’t good at distinguishing between miscreant vigilantes like Swartz who are trying to free information systems and profit-driven or diabolical hackers who are trying to bring down those systems. That’s when an expansive law like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act becomes dangerous. Prosecutors persuaded of their own righteousness, and woodenly equating downloading a deliberately unprotected database with stealing, lose all sense of proportion and bring in the heavy artillery when what’s in order is a far more mild penalty.

Ok, let’s get started.

Guardian offers the best writing on this.  Article Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann: accountability for prosecutorial abuse directly points the root of the problem

the US government – as part of its war to vest control over the internet in itself and in corporate factions – has been wildly excessive, almost hysterical, in punishing even trivial and harmless activists who are perceived as “hackers”.

In Aaron Swartz: husband of prosecutor criticises internet activist’s family, author provides lots of in-depth interview with Aaron’s lawyers and attorneys to shed lights into the gruelling negotiation process that Aaron has gone through; and the ugly, disgusting faces of the prosecutors.   Now compare this to WSJ’s brief coverage.

Andy Good, Swartz’s initial lawyer, told the Boston Globe that he had warned one prosecutor, Steve Heymann, that his client was a “suicide risk”. Good said: “His reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said: ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’  I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.” Lawyers for Swartz said they had offered to accept a deferred prosecution or probation, so that if he did it again he would serve time.

Marty Weinberg, who took over from Good as Swartz’s lawyer, confirmed to the Guardian that during negotiations for a plea bargain, MIT refused to take a position which could have helped his client. Weinberg said: “During pleas negotiations for Mr Swartz, he attempted to negotiate an agreement that would not subject him to any risk of going to prison. We asked them to support this initiative but they declined. As a matter of fact, MIT as an institution communicated to myself that they would not take any position in ongoing pleas negotiations between Mr Swartz and the government.” “There were subsets of the MIT community who were profoundly in support of Aaron,” but that support did not override institutional interests, Weinberg told the Globe.

Another of Swartz’s attorneys, Elliot Peters, said on Monday that MIT officials were “very cooperative with prosecutors” during the investigation.

Economist, my favourite magazine, pointed out the essence of this case in its article Commons Man:

TO CALL Aaron Swartz gifted would be to miss the point. As far as the internet was concerned, he was the gift.

Around 2006 he obtained—though he would not say how—the complete bibliographic data for books held by the Library of Congress. He thought it unfair that the Library’s catalogue division charged hefty fees to provide this information, which, being the work of the government, had no copyright protection within the United States. So he posted it in the Open Library, which aims to provide an entry for every book in existence as part of Internet Archive, a project founded by the internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle to store a copy of every web page of every website ever to go online.

Aghast at how federal court documents were available only for a price from the inappositely named Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, in 2009 he used the free access temporarily granted to public libraries to retrieve 18m pages of PACER’s 500m documents before he was cut off. They ended up on public.resource.org, founded by Carl Malamud, a veteran advocate of open access, also known as the internet’s public librarian.

While Economists correctly pointed out Swartz’s cause was open access to public documents, the NYTimes was mostly writing about him as a purist all-information-must-be-free ideologue.  But to its credit, it did mention the cause of changing the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in article A Data Crusader, a Defendant and Now, a Cause and provide a link to the petition itself. The article What Is a ‘Hacktivist’? comes at the right time to paint a personal, friendly and make-the-world-better picture of hacktivist.  But somehow they stopped from following through the case. They didn’t challenge Carmen Ortiz’s husband’s tweet either.

Sadly, majority of the traditional newspapers either failed to appreciate the importance of this event or, even worse, try to distract attentions by associating this with depression.

BBC barely scratched the issue during this event.  It did mention this case in article Aaron Swartz investigation ordered by MIT. It seems to me that BBC has failed to grasp the essence of this event by finishing the article with this:

However, in a blog post, Orin Kerr, a professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, wrote the actions of the prosecutors had been “based on a fair reading of the law”. “None of the charges involved aggressive readings of the law or any apparent prosecutorial overreach,” he said. “All of the charges were based on established case law.”

Japan’s two most popular newspaper YomiuriAsahi and China’s government mouthpiece PeopleDaily has no mentions at all.

WSJ is muddying the water by linking this to the suicide and depression angle even though more than 80% of its readers vote the charge to be “overzealous”

Its article Web Activist’s Suicide Highlights Tech Law began with

Mental-health experts cautioned against trying to settle on an explicit cause when someone kills himself. “I’m sure he perceived that as a stressor,” Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, said of the criminal charges. But, he said, “It’s always a stretch to say that’s the only cause.” Mr. Eells wasn’t familiar with details of the Swartz case.

and ended with

On what would prove to be the morning of his death, Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, the couple had a tickle fight before she left for work. Mr. Swartz said he was going to stay home and rest.

Its other article Legal Case Strained Troubled Web Activist went even further by talking about “state sponsored hackers who threaten national security” and “organized criminals who break into computers for financial gain”.  WSJ, you were really trying hard to establish some link in your reader’s mind, aren’t you?

What began as a straightforward report of a campus breaking-and-entering incident eventually ensnared Mr. Swartz, who had written publicly about his battle with depression, in the broader federal apparatus for prosecuting computer crimes.

At the top of their list of targets are state-sponsored hackers who threaten national security and organized criminals who break into computers for financial gain. The longest prison sentence so far in a U.S. hacking case—20 years–was given to a Miami man, Albert Gonzalez, in 2010 for his role in the theft and sale of millions of credit and debit cards. In recent years, prosecutors in the U.S. and Europe have become increasingly concerned about the growth of hacking groups, known as “hacktivists.” The groups, sometimes formed under the guise of free-lance computer-security firms, have exposed the security vulnerabilities of computers used by government, law enforcement and corporations through online mischief.

But nothing comes as classic as China’s XinHua’s blatant distraction tactic in its article Suicide of U.S. Internet activist fuels talk about depression.

Prominent U.S. Internet developer and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide last week, which triggered heated discussion in Startupland these days about the prevalence of depression in the tech community.

Allow me to finish this article by quoting Dan Gillmor’s post on Guardian

Remember Aaron Swartz by working against government abuses

If I lived in Massachusetts, where the U.S. Attorney with overall jurisdiction over Aaron’s case may run for governor, I’d start working tomorrow to ensure that she couldn’t get elected dogcatcher. I’d also raise money to pay the best and bravest lawyer I could find, to ask the Massachusetts Bar Association to investigate how she and the assistant U.S. attorney in direct charge of the case had acted, and whether they deserved to keep their licenses to practice law.

No matter where I lived, I would ask my member of the US House and my US senators how they can allow the computer crime laws they passed to criminalize a violation of a terms of service – an interpretation that could put any one of us in jail under the Justice Department’s misuse of the law. If the people representing me didn’t respond or expressed support for the administration’s you’re-all-potential-prisoners stance, I’d look for better representatives.

If I wrote software code for, say, Facebook or any other big company, or was a young coder considering a startup, I’d ask myself whether my work was worthy of Aaron’s memory – and if not, what I would do about that. And I’d find and support organizations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that are carrying on the work Aaron championed, and did, to bring our culture and laws into the 21st Century in ways that value creativity, openness and collaboration.

Get angry. Then get busy.