Uncovering The Mystery Of The Missing Activists


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This week, Hamish McKenzie attended a memorial for Aaron Swartz, the young activist who committed suicide while being prosecuted for downloading millions of academic papers.

He writes:

Berin Szoka, the president of the group TechFreedom, offered some words that were uncomfortable for some. Speaking of the Internet activist’s alleged crime of downloading millions of academic articles, Szoka stepped out of the night’s orthodoxy of holding Swartz up as a hero.

“I cannot condone what Aaron did,” Szoka started, about to launch into an argument about how Internet freedom should not be a partisan issue. He was cut off before he could go any further.

Foremski’s Take: The future of Aaron Swartz has nothing to do with Aaron Swartz and has everything to do with agendas of digital libertarians and related activists.

I attended a recent memorial in San Francisco (above) and saw how many speakers spoke passionately for changes in the law, for changes in government policies, for many worthwhile causes, as if Mr. Swartz’s death was an intentional sacrifice for a greater good.

I’ve had my run-ins online with those that claim to know what Aaron Swartz died for, and that seek to enroll him in their agendas.

It’s not that I disagree with calls for overhauling laws, or freeing medical research data that was publicly funded. But that these calls for activism were lacking in volume and frequency when he was living.

At the recent memorial in San Francisco, I had an interesting conversation with John Gilmore, co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, about Mr Swartz’s activism and the levels of support he was getting from the EFF, and other organizations and individuals.

I asked if it was his activism that led to his suicide? He said possibly it was “a lack of activism” in general around the issues and his impending trial. He wasn’t able to get the attention he really needed for his activism to succeed.

Are the digital libertarians now hoisting his corpse onto their shoulders and wailing and flailing against “the Man” and calling his suicide a sacrifice for their agendas, when they could have done so much more to help him when he was alive?

Was it the lack of activism that pushed him to suicide?

Where were those people that now loudly claim him for their own, when he needed them to be just as vocal in their support, on the eve of his trial and prosecution?

I hadn’t heard much about his work and the names of those that supported him, until his suicide. And I usually pay attention to these types of things. And the same is true for many others I’ve spoken with. Several speakers at the SF memorial admitted they had never met him.

Aaron Swartz left no explanation for his suicide. And it would seem that he has ceded control over how the world now views his life and death and the reasons for both.

But that’s not entirely true.

While we do not know his reasons for suicide, we do know that he did not want it to be used to further the causes he is now linked with. Because he could have easily combined the two in a last letter.

People should respect his decision to separate his death from his activism and not appropriate his last tragic act in life to bolster their causes — no matter how progressive or just.

The lesson in Aaron Swartz’s suicide is clear: Let’s not wait to speak out on important issues, and let’s help our lead activists in their times of greatest need — when they are still living.

Tom Foremski
Tom Foremski is the Editor and Founder of the popular and top-ranked news site Silicon Valley Watcher, reporting on business and culture of innovation. He is a former journalist at the Financial Times and in 2004, became the first journalist from a leading newspaper to resign and become a full-time journalist blogger.

Tom has been reporting on Silicon Valley and the US tech industry since 1984 and has been named as one of the top 50 (#28) most influential bloggers in Silicon Valley. His current focus is on the convergence of media and technology — the making of a new era for Silicon Valley. He also writes a column at ZDNET.
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