Aaron Swartz's politics weren't just about free technology: they were about freeing humanity

In a guest editorial on Naked Capitalism, Matt Stoller reminds us that Aaron Swartz's politics weren't just about digital freedom: he saw free software and open networks as instrumental to eliminating corruption and corporatism in wider society.

In 2009, I was working in Rep. Alan Grayson’s office as a policy advisor. We were engaged in fights around the health care bill that eventually became Obamacare, as well as a much narrower but significant fight on auditing the Federal Reserve that eventually became a provision in Dodd-Frank. Aaron came into our office to intern for a few weeks to learn about Congress and how bills were put together. He worked with me on organizing the campaign within the Financial Services Committee to pass the amendment sponsored by Ron Paul and Alan Grayson on transparency at the Fed. He helped with the website NamesOfTheDead.com, a site dedicated to publicizing the 44,000 Americans that die every year because they don’t have health insurance. Aaron learned about Congress by just spending time there, which seems like an obvious thing to do. Many activists prefer to keep their distance from policymakers, because they are afraid of the complexity of the system and believe that it is inherently corrupting. Aaron, as with much of his endeavors, simply let his curiosity, which he saw as synonymous with brilliance, drive him.

Aaron also spent a lot of time learning how advocacy and electoral politics works from outside of Congress. He helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that sought to replace existing political consulting machinery in the Democratic Party. At the PCCC, he worked on stopping Ben Bernanke’s reconfirmation (the email Aaron wrote called him “Bailout Ben”), auditing the Fed and passing health care reform. I remember he sent me this video of Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, on Reddit, offering his support to Grayson’s provision. A very small piece of the victory on Fed openness belongs to Aaron.

By the time I met and became friends with Aaron, he had already helped create RSS and co-founded and sold Reddit. He didn’t have to act with intellectual humility when confronting the political system, but he did. Rather than approach politics as so many successful entrepreneurs do, which is to say, try to meet top politicians and befriend them, Aaron sought to understand the system itself. He read political blogs, what I can only presume are gobs of history books (like Tom Ferguson’s Golden Rule, one of the most important books on politics that almost no one under 40 has read), and began talking to organizers and political advocates. He wanted, first and foremost, to know. He learned about elections, political advertising, the data behind voting, and grassroots organizing. He began understanding policy, by learning about Congressional process, its intersection with politics, and how staff and influence networks work on the Hill and through agencies. He analyzed money. He analyzed corruption. Read more at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-swartzs-politics.html#kfgiaaCSrsDsAWCi.99

Aaron Swartz’s Politics


  1. Sadly we need more people with enough courage to stand up the way he did. Its just unbelievable to me the zeal with which he was prosecuted, while in the wake of financial corruption, and real collapse the bankers and hedge fund managers that fueled our financial collapse simply walk away from the wreckage enriched. If the justice department can rationalize a hacking accusation for Swartz, then they can certainly rationalize a hacking accusation for the hedge fund managers that implored banks to offer more doomed securities while at the same time betting against them by an order of magnitude.

    1.  When you don’t have a real economy you have to fake it.

      Two major ways have been discovered and have been propping up the US “economy” since the late ’80’s or so:
      1. Exotic financial instruments (CDO’s, etc.)
      2. Intellectual property.

      In other words, the government is on the side of the bankers for exactly the same reason it was against Aaron Swartz.  Don’t expect this to change barring a significant popular uprising.  Better yet, don’t expect this to change.

  2. At least one deleted comment was upset that Swartz was a “thief,” but I would suggest taking a look at the income model of JSTOR.  Universities and study authors make no money by publishing in JSTOR, and JSTOR is a non-profit.  The only entity that stood to lose money from Swartz’s actions was JSTOR, an organization that has legally asserted it has no interest in making money.

    1. I can understand why MIT was angered enough to throw the book at him. There’s a fine line between a clever hack and old fashioned breaking and entering. If you sneak in to put a cow on the roof, well, that’s cute. If you sneak in to clean out the file cabinets, it’s much harder for the institution to smile at it.

      1. He did neither so your comparisons make no sense. Giving free access to papers which are advertised as free is not cleaning file cabinets.

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