Partial Readings: Aaron Swartz, Mineral Wars, Pink Militants

An Unlikely Martyr

I’m not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Health care, financial reform—those are the issues that I work on. Not something obscure like copyright law.

This was Aaron Swartz’s initial reaction, in September 2010, to a friend who informed him for the first time about the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act (COICA), an early version of the bill that later gained infamy as SOPA/PIPA. Relating the conversation in a talk given last May, Swartz described realizing later on that the stringent defense of online copyright undertaken in these bills amounted to an attack on a much deeper “freedom to connect.” It is deeply saddening that Aaron Swartz’s battle with copyright and the twisted criminal justice system driving it ultimately did take his life. Who would have predicted that copyright—“a little issue,” as Swartz first saw it—could produce a kind of twenty-first-century martyr?

Many have already paid admirable tribute to the ways that Swartz, since the age of twelve, helped expand our means of sharing information and ideas online—for example, his contributions to RSS and to Creative Commons licensing. Moreover, tributes have drawn attention to the political contradictions and injustices that brought Swartz to a personal impasse. His close friend and mentor Lawrence Lessig has been one of Swartz’s most outspoken advocates since long before he took his own life. Responding to the notion that Swartz was led to suicide by pathological depression, Lessig told Democracy Now!,

When he saw all of his wealth gone, and he recognized his parents were going to have to mortgage their house so he could afford a lawyer to fight a government that treated him as a 9/11 terrorist, as if what he was doing was threatening the infrastructure of the United States…when he saw that and he recognized how incredibly difficult that fight was going to be…of course he was depressed!

On his own blog, Lessig reminds readers that “we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House—and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons.’” Tim Wu at the New Yorker further underscores the tensions between criminalization and the veneration of lawbreakers in our society, specifically in the domain of technology.

Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.

Further reading:

Volokh‘s detailed account of the allegations against Swartz
JSTOR‘s statement exonerating Swartz
Alex Stamos’s technical defense at Unhandled Exception
A sharp critique of current hacking laws from the Electronic Frontier Foundation
California Representative Zoe Lofgren proposes “Aaron’s Law” as a revision to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (Huffington Post)
John Quiggin at Crooked Timber says Obama should “pardon” Swartz
Corey Robin says he should not
Peter Singer and Agata Satan tackle depression and weigh the prospects for opening access to academic resources at the New York Review of Books


Far North and South: Mineral Wars

Last week in Dissent, James Kilgore reported on the distressing conditions still faced by miners in South Africa, the birthplace of such international mining conglomerates as De Beers. Founded in 1870 by imperial business magnate Cecil Rhodes following the discovery of large diamond deposits in South Africa’s Northern Cape, De Beers came to control 90 percent of the world diamond trade within twenty years—they still control close to half of the industry—and has been emblematic of the abuses of the trade ever since.

Today, De Beers’s reach extends as far from South Africa as remote northern Ontario, Canada, where the recently-opened Victor Mine sits on First Nations territories. Despite being governed by Impact Benefit Agreements with the Attawapiskat and Moose Cree First Nations, having been rated “Mine of the Year” in 2009 by the industry publication Mining Magazine, and reportedly generating over $5 million in payments to the First Nations communities, the mine has not led to any substantial improvements in the disastrously poor local infrastructure. A recent report in Yes! magazine notes that

this is where the first world meets the third world in the north, as Canadian MP Bob Rae discovered last year on his tour of the destitute conditions in the village. Infrastructure in the subarctic is in short supply. There is no road into the village eight months of the year; during the other four months, during freeze up, there’s an ice road.

In November 2011—a time of year when local nighttime temperatures drop to about ten degrees Fahrenheit—Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence applied to the Canadian government for urgent housing development to redress the fact that many residents were living in makeshift tents and shacks without heat, electricity, or plumbing. Meanwhile, mining operations are reported to have contributed to environmental degradation, including overloading Attawapiskat’s sewage system in 2009.

Now, Stephen Harper’s C-45 budget bill has loosened restrictions on mining and energy companies seeking to operate in First Nations territories, opening these protected areas up to further environmental degradation. Little surprise, then, that Attawapiskat Chief Spence has become a figurehead of the Idle No More movement after launching a hunger strike to demand negotiations with Harper’s government over the C-45 bill. The growing movement has challenged provisions in this massive bill amending Canada’s Indian, Navigation Protection, and Environmental Assessment Acts in ways that “erode treaty and indigenous rights and the rights of all Canadians,” according to movement members.

Could Idle No More protesters seek solidarity through the tangled net of mining operations connecting the “third worlds” of the Global North and South? As a target shared by peace, labor, and environmental activists, the international mining industry is long overdue for such a broad-based challenge.


Poor, Pink, and Militant

Outraged by gang rapes in New Delhi and Steubenville and encouraged by the protests that have greeted them (not to mention the special section on feminism in the most recent issue of Dissent), you may also be heartened by the Gulabi (Pink) Gang, an all-women’s vigilante justice group based in one of the poorest regions of India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Reportedly numbering anywhere between 10,000 and 40,000, the group has gained local notoriety and international acclaim for aggressively confronting local women’s issues and, in many cases, beating up abusive husbands and corrupt cops with their bamboo lathis. Back in 2008, Gulabi founder and leader Sampatpal Devi told VICE,

We aim to empower women, promote child education with an emphasis on girls, and stop corruption and domestic violence. I visit numerous villages every day and meet the various members of the gang. We have gang meetings where we decide the plan of action if we hear of something that we oppose going on. First we go to the police and request that they do something. But since the administration is against the poor people of our country, we often end up taking matters into our own hands. We first speak to the husband who is beating his wife. If he doesn’t understand then we ask his wife to join us while we beat him with lathis.

The group also received coverage from the BBC and Al Jazeera at the time, and has been in the limelight again in the past month following the gang rape and murder of a twenty-three-year-old medical student on a moving bus in Delhi. The mobilization of poor rural women, including members of the Gulabi Gang, in the wake of this incident ought to stem accusations—made, for example, by Arundhati Roy—that the recent protests are merely a middle-class phenomenon reflecting concern for the middle-class student victim of the bus rape. Roy is right to point out that comparable incidents targeting poor, lower-caste, and tribal women have never elicited such widespread protests, let alone mainstream media coverage—and that toughening laws against rape will not necessarily prevent those in power from exercising sexual violence as a kind of feudal privilege—yet there is little doubt that these issues have been brought to light by the recent protests, in which marginalized women have also played a role.

In light of widespread calls among the anti-rape protesters for the execution of the six accused Delhi rapists, Gulabi leader Sampatpal offered a dissenting voice. “The rapists should not be hanged as it would not serve any purpose, instead they should be chemically castrated. The line, ‘I am a rapist’, should also be permanently etched on their foreheads.” Ever the pragmatist, Sampatpal defies the chorus of mainstream voices with her direct, uncompromising solutions.

In addition to vigilantism, the Gulabi Gang is now promoting cottage industries, launching a primary school for low-caste children (especially girls), and developing services like wedding planning through a budding women’s cooperative. Their efforts have also recently inspired an offshoot group—perhaps more militant still—which dresses in black and has branded itself “Nagini” after the female cobra.

×