Lessig’s chair lecture honored the citizenship of one who thought differently
“Aaron Swartz was a prodigy. At the age of 13 he was awarded the ArsDigita Prize for work that would eventually inspire things like Wikipedia. At the age of 14 he helped co-design the RSS protocol. At the age of 15 he was the core architect for the creative infrastructure of Creative Commons. At the age of 17, after being home-schooled, he went to Stanford. He lasted for just about a year. At the age of 19 he began Infogami, which eventually merged with reddit and became the most popular crowdsourced news site on the Web today. And from the age of 20 through the end he worked on a series of incredible projects from the Open Library project to the Public.Resource.Org project to Change Congress, which I helped start with him, and migrated to Fix Congress First and Rootstrikers—to the Sunlight Foundation to the PCCC to his final organization, Demand Progress.”
Lawrence Lessig marked his appointment as Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School with a lecture titled “Aaron’s Laws: Law and Justice in a Digital Age.” The Feb. 19 lecture honored the memory and work of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and activist who took his own life on Jan. 11, at the age of 26.
Swartz spent the last two years of his life fighting federal charges that he violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for accessing a computer network at MIT in 2010 and downloading millions of academic articles from the nonprofit online storage service JSTOR. He is the inspiration for “Aaron’s Law,” a draft bill, introduced by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), which would limit the scope of the CFAA.
A longtime friend and mentor of Swartz’s, Lessig is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. His most recent work “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It” advocates for a convention to address what he calls the corrupting influence of money and special interests in Congress.
He is a founding board member of Creative Commons, which promotes universal access, innovation, and sharing of ideas, and the creator of Rootstrikers, an organization that aims to share stories about government corruption, money, and media and to work toward practical reform.
Harvard News Office
“We need to celebrate the activity hacking. We need to celebrate it because, like lawyers, maybe better than lawyers, what this hacking is is the use of technical knowledge to advance a public good. … The most important part of Aaron’s life is that part most run over too quickly—when he shifted his focus from this effort to advance freedom in the space of copyright to an effort to advance freedom and social justice more generally. And I shared this shift with him.”
“In 2006, Aaron said to me, ‘However are you ever going to make progress in the areas I was working on—copyright reform, Internet regulation reform—so long as there is [as he put it] this “corruption in the political field”?’ I tried to deflect him a bit. I said, ‘Look, it’s not my field.’ And he said, ‘I get it, as an academic, you mean?’ And I said, ‘Yes, as an academic, that’s not my field.’ And he said, ‘And as a citizen, is it your field?‘ As a citizen, is it your field? And this was his power. Amazing, unpatented power. Like the very best teachers, he taught by asking. Like the most effective leaders, his questions were on a path, his path. They coerced you, if you wanted to be as he was. They forced you to think of who you were and what you believed in and decide were you to be the person you thought you were.”
“To take this on through civil disobedience risked devastating penalties. Civil disobedience has an important tradition. … What is civil disobedience about? It’s about taking a public act. Being willing to pay the penalty, because you’re able to pay the penalty. But copyright is different. The disobedience of copyright is not done in public. People are not willing to pay the penalty, because we are not able to pay the penalty. Compare: Martin Luther King, the civil disobedient, was arrested on scores of misdemeanors. He was only ever charged with two felonies and acquitted by an all-white jury of those two felonies because the basis of the claims was so outrageous. He did jail time, scores of days in jail. Compare him with Aaron. Charged with 13 felonies, giving a federal judge the right to sentence him to up to 35 years in jail.”
“These harms can, but they need not, produce harms. What this shows is that we need prosecutors who can tell the difference between Aaron and evil. Judge Kozinski reported that in response to his questions at the oral argument in Nosal, the government assures us that whatever the scope of CFAA, it won’t prosecute minor violations. But the most striking thing about this prosecution was that the more they knew about Aaron, the more vicious they became. Their assurances notwithstanding, they became more intent to make this an example. … You don’t need to believe that Aaron was right to see that what the government did here was wrong. Even if it was right that [Aaron] committed a crime, still, it was wrong for them to respond so disproportionately in response to that crime.”
“Aaron was a hacker, but not just a hacker. He was an Internet activist, but not just an Internet activist. He was a political activist, but not just a political activist. He was a citizen who felt a moral obligation to do what he believed was right, and if he was guilty here, it was because he acted on that view of what was right. And we need to act to respect that act of citizenship. To think beyond what Aaron did, to think beyond what was done to him, to think about the ideals he gave everything in his life to and to make those ideals the law.”
“After Aaron died, a German filmmaker wrote me an email, and he said, ‘Aaron was a victim of a strangely fascistic spirit that has developed in America over the past decade or so. Die Andersdenkenden are being destroyed without any mercy. As if mercy were somehow a sign of weakness.’ Die Andersdenkenden translates roughly as ‘those who think differently.’ … If this is America, we need to protect that right to think differently of all of us. We need to protect it here and we need to fight for it by holding accountable those who would crush the soul of a boy like this and defend it as ‘appropriate.’ Forget think different. Think Aaron. Think of what we did to him and think of the laws that we must enact to make it right.”