Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Remember Aaron

Aaron Swartz was around in my early days of XML when I had the immense honor of working with people like Lisa Rein, Ken North, David RR Webber, Ken Holman, Didier Martin, James Tauber, John Evdemon, JP Morgenthal, Simon St. Laurent, Kurt Cagle and others.   In retrospect, we (not Aaron) were collectively the first wave of open data and the beginning of portable content and service oriented architectures.  Visionaries like Tim Bray, Eve Maler, Jon Bosak and David Orchard were on a path to place the letter "X" in everything we did, at least until Tim straightened us out a bit.  It was then the realization was not about the syntax, nor the data models, but what it meant to society to have free flowing information.  This one page pretty much summarizes the who's who of XML.

During this time there was a quiet second wave of the internet brewing.  A group of young individuals who saw the internet as not just angle brackets, but thought about what they could do if all the work we worked on became common place.  They weren't thinking about how it worked, but what they could do with it.  They also were the first generation to come of age with the information superhighway and were quick to realize that the old school guard (those who make laws) were sadly out of touch with the reality of what the internet provided or represented.   This is still true today and there are laws on the books that are impossible to enforce in an electronic realm.  I can buy music and play it, but I cannot legally share it.  Consider this -> on my stereo, I play the music in a device that decodes the music from it's physical media, then streams an electronic signal over a wire to a speaker that creates an audio signal.   Is there a law that says that speaker wire must be only within my living room, or can that wire be the internet?  Can I buy music and stream it to others over a very long wire?   What if those other people are in my living room and hear my music?  Is that illegal?  I'm not sure there is an answer.

On the other hand, some would argue I am greedy for trying to sell my music but I believe if my band invests $25,000 into recording our music, we own the right to determine whether it is free or not.  You do not have the right to steal my music and sell it and keep money as many have done.  Conversely,  I do believe in fair use. Balance and exploring new business models.  Anyways, this digresses.

There are several collectives of the new internet generation.   I've been to many events like Open Everything, Web of Change and even some hackathons.  The antics of those who fight injustices using the cloak of anonymity are arguably less risky than standing up and using your real name as Aaron did.  The latter makes you a target.

These groups are filled with idealistic minds who have a true desire to protect freedoms and do what they believe is right.   One of those youngsters was Aaron Swartz, a late friend of Lisa Rein's who seemed to grab that torch and run further than anyone else.  This new wave of visionaries started mixing politics and human rights into the equation while us old school guard argued about using XML elements or attributes.  Many of the new guard just trusted that what we helped build would be done and act as the basis for the future.  Aaron picked fights.   Aaron stood up and said what needed to be said.  I remember his passion to kill SOPA which eventually caused me to jump on the bandwagon.   The video below is a summary of the SOPA/PIPA triumph where the government feared the people instead of the other way around.   Maybe one day we will realize we are the government?  Joe Keithley is prepared to take on that challenge as have other punk rockers.

We may find it strange but many bills are passed without the people who pass them reading them.  I was inspired by Aaron to read the bill.  I wrote about SOPA (aka HR 3261) here.  What shocked me was the speed upon which Americans woke up and opposed the draconian attempt to limit freedom.  Protests came from all over the web.  First Republican Chairman Mr. Lamar Smith (historically one of the biggest backers of SOPA) announced plans to remove the Domain Name System or DNS-blocking provision.  Many of us started censoring our own sites in protest. It worked.  SOPA died.  In it's place are a number of new bills being written as we speak.  Who will be the next Aaron to step up and wake us up to what we risk?  

Sadly Aaron became the target of and investigation and ended his life.   I have but one ask of anyone reading this.  Please watch the video above.   If his legacy is becoming vigilante and aware of the attempts to limit our voices, our freedoms and awareness of control, then his life's work should be celebrated.

Cory Doctorow has written a nice article on Aaron here.