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Internet’s folk hero

“Think deeply about things. Don’t just go along because that’s the way things are or that’s what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.”

Aaron Swartz, an internet legend, it’s own boy — a tech genius. Dropped out of school at the age of 14, he earned an early success as a programmer. He developed Reddit at the age of nineteen and took a turn toward political activism devoting his short life to the idea of free internet.

He was against the corporate influence. He believed that ideas should be freely available on the Internet favoring the free access of all sources. Academic publications are bound within the notions of copyright. Information published in the scientific and cultural field are digitized and monopolized by few private corporations. These large corporations, he wrote, are ‘blinded by the greed’ and the restricted access is a ‘private theft of public culture’.

Scholarly researched literature which is funded by taxpayers is available to only some well-known universities in the developed world. The general public would have to pay a subscription fee to go through an article. In 2013, Aaron was a research fellow at the Harvard University which provided him an access to the JSTOR account. JSTOR is a digital library that contains full-text research of almost 2,000 journals on various disciplines. He downloaded a close to two-thirds of the JSTORE archive through the MIT computer network (which can be equivalent to the subscription fee of fifty thousand dollars). This lead to his capture and an eventual trial. Federal prosecutors charged him with a ridiculous 35 years sentence in prison and a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fine. However, the plea bargain was offered which Swartz and his attorney denied in the end.

Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data or dollars- Carmen M. Ortez, U.S. Attorney & Prosecutor of Aaron Swartz

On 11th January, two days later, Swartz hanged himself with his belt in a New-York apartment leaving no suicide note behind. Contrary to the idea that he was depressed, his family members and near ones claimed that he has been indirectly killed by the government. His girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote,

“I believe that Aaron’s death was not caused by depression…I say this because, since his suicide, as I’ve tried to grapple with what happened, I’ve been learning. I’ve researched clinical depression and associated disorders. I’ve read their symptoms, and at least until the last 24 hours of his life, Aaron didn’t fit them.

…I believe Aaron’s death was caused by exhaustion, by fear, and by uncertainty. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a persecution and a prosecution that had already wound on for 2 years (what happened to our right to a speedy trial?) and had already drained all of his financial resources. I believe that Aaron’s death was caused by a criminal justice system that prioritizes power over mercy, vengeance over justice; a system that punishes innocent people for trying to prove their innocence instead of accepting plea deals that mark them as criminals in perpetuity; a system where incentives and power structures align for prosecutors to destroy the life of an innovator like Aaron in the pursuit of their own ambitions.”

Aaron Swartz was a significant part of the free culture movement. He was fighting furiously to make the information accessible to everyone. Restriction over valuable research in developing countries seemed intolerable to him, “Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.”

This meant that researchers and doctors treating patients with cancer or other diseases in remote regions of Africa could not access complete articles that describe the latest results in the treatments even if the research is done locally.

And if you decide to pay, you won’t know the article is relevant as the abstracts don’t always make it clear enough what is contained there. And restricted access journals are also prone to spurious results. You might cover the costs to read a peer-reviewed journal but receive some junk crafted by long technical phrases. Predatory and ‘unacademic’ articles are, overall, building a real obstacle in scientific development. For instance, an analysis done by Gopalkrishan Seethapathy and colleagues from the University of Oslo judged 350 journals (published in the year 2015–2016 alone) as predatory. In brief, prestigious and restricted sites aren’t completely flaw-free.

Coming back to Free-culture movement, it doesn’t concern academic publication exclusively but targets the restriction over music, art, and software industry also. Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation shared his opinion by stating,

Works of practical use should be free. Works regarding points of view should be shareable but not changeable and works of art or entertainment should be copyrighted.

Maybe we do need a free access to research done by our predecessors in order to appease our curiosity and as an initial point for our own discovery. Just like they used the knowledge and discoveries of others to build themselves up. Openness helps in the discovery.

Standing on the shoulders of the giants.

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Failure of justice

 

We fail ourselves if the wrong person is in jail. Police, prosecutors, and judges are society’s agents: what they do in our name, rightly or wrongly measures us as a people. One wrongful conviction would be too many if you were the one: imagine for a moment that it’s you locked behind bars, innocent – Bill Rowling, CEO, Civil Liberties Australia

We have the freedom to cherish. We feel protected and safe within a system that guarantees us the legal rights. This system composed of human beings like you and me is an ultimate source of support and relief. But as they say to err is human. And an error made during criminal convictions can destroy lives, relationships and mental health with no real compensation for the lost years and liberty. And the question of compensation arises only if one is lucky enough to be exonerated. Or else, many innocent prisoners never make to clear their offenses and stay unrecognized by the justice system. As the study shows that 4.1% of inmates awaiting execution on death row in the US are innocent and that at least 340 innocent people may have been executed since 1973.

 

The matter becomes more disturbing when someone from the justice system intentionally works against innocents and frame them. Prosecutors who are focused on securing convictions, a police officer who isn’t reliable and a judge who is reluctant to overturn the case can end up putting an innocent behind the bars. They can use controversial techniques to get the confessions and have their work done without caring whatsoever about the truth. As happened with Jeffrey Mark Deskovic who was convicted of raping, beating and strangling a classmate at the age of 17. According to the police, he had a suspicious behavior as he was emotionally distraught over her classmate’s death and was an awkward kid without many friends. Jeffrey described his experience during the police interrogation that eventually leads him to the imprisonment for 17 years.

 

“They got me to agree to take a polygraph test telling me that there was some new information in the police file that they wanted to share with me but the only way they could do that if only I took and passed the polygraph examination…

They put me in a small room. I didn’t have an attorney present. I wasn’t given anything to eat the entire time I was there. There were three police officers who I knew were police officers and then there was the polygraphist who actually was a county sheriff’s investigator dresses like a civilian pretending not to be a cop. They strapped me to the polygraph machine and before beginning the polygraph examination they gave me countless cups of coffee, the purpose of which was to get me nervous. So after about 20 mins, pretending to align the machine, the interrogator started interrogating me using the third-degree tactic. He invaded my personal space, he raised his voice at me, he kept asking me the same questions over and over again as each hour passed so did my fear increase in proportion to the time. Towards the end of the examination, the polygrapher made a statement. What do you mean you didn’t do it? You just told me through the polygraph test result that you did. We just want you to verbally confirm it.

When he said that to me, it really shot my fear through the roof. At that point who should make a grand appearance other than the police officer who was pretending to be my friend. He informed me that the other officers were going to harm me but he was holding them off but could not do so indefinitely. You have to help yourself here, you understand.

Considering that I have maintained my innocence for previous six and a half to seven hours. It was clear what he meant by that. They wanted me to confess. When it was added that if I did as they wanted, not only the would stop what they are doing but I could go home afterward. Being young, naive, frightened sixteen years old, not thinking about the long-term implications, just being concerned about my safety right then right there, in fear of my life, painfully conscious of the fact that I knew that nobody knew where I was and then there was the push-pull dynamic. One one hand, the officer is threatening me with harm bait, on the other, he’s throwing me the false life preserver telling me that I’m not gonna be arrested. Being totally overwhelmed emotionally and psychologically. I took out what they offered and I made up a story based upon the information which they had given me in the course of interrogation.”

Jeffrey is one the 205 men and one woman who have been exonerated through DNA evidence since 1989 in which 53 have been convicted of murder.
Another alarming case is of Lawrence McKinney, 62, who spent half of his life in prison after he was wrongly convicted of raping a woman and stealing her television in 1978. After 31 years in jail, an evidence was found indicating that he was not even present on the scene. He was issued $75 in compensation and it took him another three months to cash it as he had no ID. Pretty shame paying $2 for each year he spent in prison.

 

I don’t have no life, all my life was taken away.

After release begins the struggle of reconnecting with people and making a living. A trauma that proceeds with grief for lost years.

 

When I came out I was very paranoid and I thought people were out to get me -it was like everybody was staring at me. For the first six months after I was released from prison, I tried to work with other people in similar circumstances to me to secure the release, but I ended up in the hospital because I was having a nervous breakdown. — Michael O’Brien

In 2012, convictions of more than 1100 cases were overturned due to separate 13 police corruption scandals, most of which involved the planting of drugs or guns on innocent defendants.

It’s not that rare that the prosecutors and police ignore key evidence and intentionally withhold information from the defense. Prosecutors have immense power in determining who will be subjected to criminal punishment. And some misuse this power and fail to reveal the evidence. They have absolute immunity against civil suits and they rarely receive the conviction for their errors. Indeed, a study conducted in 5 states found that in 660 cases where courts had confirmed prosecutorial misconduct the number of prosecutors disciplined was only one. Some prosecutors even receive bonuses for achieving a high conviction.

Kwame Ajamu exonerated after 40 years spent in prison

When people in power turn a blind eye to the crime and let some innocent rot in the prison for a lifetime, we can’t help losing our faith in humanity and justice system. But the struggle will go on, striving for the truth and for the meritable freedom. Finishing with Voltaire, the priority must be to protect the innocent.

It is better to risk saving a guilty man than to condemn an innocent one.