Aaron Swartz – It’s not the final word

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By Stephan Manning.

Aaron died on January 11 2013. He was 26 years old. In his short life, Aaron made more impact in this world than I will probably ever make. And – I should add – his influence would have grown so much larger if he had decided to live.

Aaron once described himself as someone who is driven entirely by curiosity. And this might have been true when he joined a working group at the age of 14 to co-author the RSS 1.0 standard – a web feed format for frequently updated works, such as blogs and news headlines. After dropping out of college he founded Infogami which later merged with Reddit – a news spreading website which today attracts Millions of users every month. But this – although impressive by itself – is not why I am writing this blog. Aaron was more than a gifted programmer and web enthusiast.

From early on, Aaron stood for a new spirit in the Internet age. He fought for the right to connect and freely share information. And he did this in ways that were novel, effective and sometimes drastic. Most famous perhaps is Aaron’s leadership role in the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would have allowed the U.S. government to shut down websites accused of violating copyright, and, in effect, censor Internet content. You might remember the ‘Internet strike’ on January 18 2012: Wikipedia shut down and Google went black – probably the largest coordinated online protest ever. And as Aaron describes it, this movement was neither backed by political groups, non-governmental organizations, nor the corporate world. There was no lobby for it. Even mass media remained silent – maybe because of their vested interest in controlling the spread of news and information through the Internet. It was entirely up to citizens and Internet users to recognize the importance of this bill and to raise their voices. And it took leaders like Aaron to make that happen. For more details you may find this video very insightful:

http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/aaron-swartz-reader-in-his-own-words.html

It might take years before people realize how important this collective action was. It could very well be that the freedom to connect and share information will become a human right much like the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. What happened in 2012 was maybe ahead of time, and, yet, it may lay the groundwork for a fundamental shift in thinking about the social value of information.

And let’s not forget about Aaron’s activism in related domains. Aaron strongly believed that access to public sources of knowledge and information should be free. In 2008, he downloaded and released approximately 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database of United States federal court documents. PACER was charging 8 cents per page for information – much more than necessary to keep the system running, and a financial burden for many who might be interested in accessing these documents. In a similar fashion, Aaron used his access to MIT’s ‘open campus’ to download a large amount of articles from JSTOR – a digital repository of academic articles – for free dissemination. Aaron was arrested, facing a long sentence in prison, mainly because MIT held on to charges of wire fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer etc. This affair might have very well contributed to Aaron’s early death.

What Aaron did might appear to some as an act of stealing, but let’s take a broader perspective. The law does not distinguish between crimes that are committed for personal benefit from illegal actions for the greater good. Nor has the law any foresight. Not so long ago it was illegal for women to vote, illegal for homosexual couples to get married, illegal to abort. And it used to be legal to physically punish school kids as a teacher, legal to restrict access to public places for physically handicapped people, legal to pollute the air without limitation. As it is legal today to make information of public value proprietary, and illegal to freely disseminate that information.

In a few years time, people may take for granted that information of public interest is freely accessible and they might have a hard time understanding why Aaron’s progressive act met so much resistance. But let’s be honest: progress is barely possible without a few brave characters who step over the line. As the German songwriter Wolf Biermann once put it in his ‘Ballade for a truly deeply concerned friend’: “My Dear, this has to do with division of labor. There are those who remain silent, and there are those who shout. If people like you go way too short, then some others may go a little too far.” Aaron went pretty far, and paid for it.

I would like to end with the first verse of another song – by Pete Seeger, a political songwriter Aaron admired very much. This song is called “If you miss me at the back of the bus” and it deals with the struggle of African Americans to fight for legal rights which everybody takes for granted today. It goes like this:

“If you miss me at the end of the bus
you can’t find me nowhere
come on over to the front of the bus
I’ll be riding up there.”

Aaron never accepted the growing rule of capital and government control over the Internet. He was riding up there. Thanks Aaron. And this will definitely not be the final word….

>>>

Further Links:

Farhad Manjoo: How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz (January 2013)

Michael Eisen: How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz (January 2013)

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Bye bye Guttenberg, Koch-Mehrin, Schavan… Is this perhaps the most effective guerilla campaign against the conservative political class?

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By Stephan Manning

We just experienced the latest successful attempt of bringing about the downfall of a conservative politician in Germany: Annette Schavan. The former German minister of education joins the club of politicians who have been forced to give up their positions in government or party because of evidence of plagiarism in their PhD dissertations. Plagiarism means that other people’s work is used without proper citations, which is a violation of academic standards and which can be interpreted as cheating – a serious form of misbehavior in the eye of the public (at least in Germany) and a legitimate reason for putting an end to a politician’s career.

If somebody had told me ten years ago that this is going to happen, I would have disregarded this scenario as unrealistic. Some time ago, only a few hardcore believers in the value of ‘original academic work’ among German social scientists really cared about international standards when it comes to PhD dissertations. In all these cases – Guttenberg, Koch-Mehrin, Schavan etc. – not only the (former) Doctor degree holders, but also their academic advisors were taken by surprise when all of a sudden somebody raised the issue of plagiarism. (For those not familiar with the German academic system: For many years, German professors would support ‘practitioner’ PhDs, i.e. the pursuit of doctor degrees in business, law and political science as a means to boost professional careers. The academic value of dissertations leading to such degrees has always been questioned. But for a long time nobody really cared about it. Sloppy academic work was an acceptable flaw of a system producing ‘academically qualified’ managers and politicians. Not so different from MBA degrees in the U.S.)

So, what is really going on?  Who came up with this idea of analyzing the accuracy of dissertations of German politicians? I should say: dissertations that probably nobody has ever read or ever will read. I am inclined to think that there can be only one explanation for this. It’s all part of a systematic guerilla campaign against conservative politicians in Germany. Clearly, the tendency to copy & paste has nothing to do with political ideology. I bet there are as many Social democrats with a Doctor degree ‘guilty of plagiarism’ as there are Christian or Liberal democrats. But, to my knowledge, no single Social democrat or Socialist politician has ever been convicted of plagiarism yet.

Let’s think about it: What’s the point of spending endless time and energy on this rather tedious task of reading and analyzing somebody’s dissertation, identifying signs of misconduct, persuading former advisors and universities to start an official investigation, and informing journalists about the process?  Unless you are on a mission! The mission of demonstrating that the conservative political class is vulnerable. And honestly, I think it’s about time!

How easy has it always been to get rid of politicians in the left camp. From ‘Animal farm’ by George Orwell we all know how the formerly underprivileged get easily corrupted by power. Easy to imagine how excited some Green or Socialist politicians in power can get being able to fly first class for fun – even if travel budgets are not designed for that. Or having easy access to large amounts of money – even if receiving private funds or honorariums as a politician is considered inappropriate (in Germany). Some might remember that exactly that forced Cem Ozdemir to step down from his position as parliament speaker of the Green party in 2002. And it is not surprising that the new Chancellor candidate of the Social Democrats, Peer Steinbrueck, almost tripped over a similar issue (honorariums for presentations). Needless to say that these little incidents of power abuse for pleasure and financial gain are nothing compared to the elaborate systems of financial support established and maintained typically by the conservative political class. Helmut Kohl’s donation system is just one example. But unlike Kohl, who was able to stay in power for sixteen years, many politicians of the left camp never even get there because of their lack of smartness in dealing with power and privileges.

Another example: How easy has it been to accuse left-wing politicians of an unstable life style! How many times did Joschka Fischer and Gerhard Schroeder get married in their lives? Ten in total? Compare that to Stoiber and Kohl. And for some reason, right-wing politicians also seem to be able to control their sexual energy much better. Or they have less to begin with. How else could you explain the ease with which the promising career of French socialist Strauss-Kahn was put to an end after allegations of inappropriate sexual encounters with a hotel maid (whether or not particular allegations are actually true does not really matter). And how easy was it for Monica Lewinsky to get charming Bill Clinton to embark on a sexual adventure. Well, there might be something about (lacking) ‘conservative values’. At least they seem to keep many conservatives from falling into the same trap.

In fact, for a long time, a lot of things had to happen before a conservative politician was ready to give up. Let’s take a recent – albeit rare – example: the Christian democrat Christian Wulff, who many consider to be the most embarrassing federal president of Germany yet. Nobody in such a position has probably ever taken advantage of political power in so many different ways – real estate deals, flight ticket discounts, numerous bribes – than this man. And he was in good company. His business-smart ex-wife had the guts to exploit her husband’s misery by publishing and openly promoting a book about the cruel reality – loneliness, neglect etc. – of being a president’s wife. There was no left-wing conspiracy needed here. Wulff got unmasked by his conservative fellows and his own wife.

But think about it: How likely is it that other members of the conservative political class are as small-minded as Wulff was? How many examples, by comparison, do we know of conservative politicians who get away with almost anything? Can you imagine any Socialist politician with the mafia ethic of Helmut Kohl or the criminal energy of Silvio Berlusconi being able to stay in power as long as they did?

The plagiarism campaign might put an end to all this – at least in Germany – and create a better balance between right-wing and left-wing activism. While lefties keep struggling with having too much power, the conservative class now faces punishment for ignoring academic standards nobody (outside academia) actually cares about. Who would have thought that good old academia has such a practical impact after all! Cheers!