In a mind-blowing interview with Chicago Public Radio, a programming whizz-kid called Aaron Swartz spoke confidently about intricate computer theory and (accurately) predicted the future of the internet. He was 14. Years later, as a hacker-activist and political commentator, he was releasing public records and academic journals to the world, and crowdsourcing support to shut down the invasive SOPA and PIPA bills in their tracks. But in the beginning of this year, after being driven to depression from political pressure, he hung himself. He was 26. So, what does the death of an internet genius have to do with sustainability? Nothing personally, I would think. It is, rather, the culture of political oppression which surrounded his death that is worrying. So, put differently, what does internet freedom have to do with the consolidation a sustainable future?
‘Internet freedom’ is a term I am using loosely. I would like to think that I know much more about ‘freedom’ than I do the ‘internet’. However, when it comes to the sad story of Aaron Swartz and how it relates to sustainability, what I am referring to is this: we have the means to freely share information and knowledge with the whole wide world, namely through the internet, which can help us as a global community come up with suitable solutions to fight the crises of our times. When ensuring a sustainable future, fighting corruption and dirty politics is as important as fighting the extractive industries that are destroying our ecosystems. So, when young idealists are punished for believing and dedicating themselves to this ‘internet freedom’ – to the extent that they are so traumatised that they kill themselves – we, as a society and keepers of our futures, we are both shooting ourselves in the foot and stabbing ourselves in the back.
Aaron Swartz represented the zeitgeist of our time: the youth are fed up, voicing their opinions and ‘we’re not gonna take it’. Internet activism – or hacktivism – is now a common way of resisting oppression and the stagnancy of power hierarchies. We have seen this with the Arab Spring and we have seen this with Anonymous. Yet, as we can expect, the politicians that have been bought out by lobbyists and the so-called ‘captains of industry’ – those that are seemingly unaccountable – they will do everything in they can do to destroy anyone and anything in their way. The SOPA and PIPA bills argued to protect intellectual property and privacy, but were in fact crude attempts to keep secrets hidden from the public. These bills would have also made it possible to suppress any internet freedom fighters that wanted to expose these secrets. After the initial victory over SOPA, Aaron Swartz commented that “we won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom.” But Swartz’s heroism would be made an example of, as was openly stated by the USA government. The tragedy of his death represents exactly what is wrong with the world today, and what prevents us achieving a sustainable future.
This kind of political oppression is not unheard of, unfortunately. Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have shared a similar fate because of their support for ‘internet freedom’. Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, has had his movements completely restricted after literally being cornered and trapped inside England’s Ecuadorian embassy. Manning, the soldier that leaked the ‘collateral murder’ video – showing the brutal massacre of Iraqi civilians by American forces – has since been detained, without charge, for over 1000 days. What kind of culture is this that punishes those that confront injustices? What message are we sending out to the other young idealists out there?
In South Africa, we are also continuously challenging our own government’s aims to keep secrets from the people. The freedoms of our people are currently jeopardised by the controversial inconsistencies of the Info Bill. Are we living in an autocracy or a democracy? The bad memories of apartheid censorship and political secrets should be long gone. We should be celebrating a democratic culture – one consistent with the Constitution. Our nation has so much potential that is being delayed by our government’s efforts to keep us numb, dumb and uninformed. And we don’t have the time.
Africa has the leapfrogged the world in terms of mobile phone market, and given the rise of smartphones, internet access will only increase. If this is Africa’s century, we need to use this to our advantage. We need to use this to help build a sustainable future based on the free and open access of knowledge and information. We need another Aaron Swartz, another Bradley Manning, another Julian Assange. What we don’t need is another questionable suicide.