Published in The Huffington Post, January 1st 2014
SATURDAY MARKS THE first anniversary of the death of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, the renowned American computer programmer, writer, political organiser and internet activist.
People all around the world are remembering Swartz, a man who Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee called “a wise elder of the web”. A new film on his life, ‘The Internet’s Own Boy – The Aaron Swartz Story’ will premiere at Sundance later this month.
I met Aaron at Harvard when he was 24. It was immediately clear that he was not only a genius, but also a gentleman who was wise beyond his years. He had a huge heart and a great mind that he devoted to making a positive difference in the world. While a life of great wealth and comfort could have been his, Aaron instead dedicated his skills to the pursuit of justice and equality, becoming recognised as a global figure for information and Internet freedom.
Since his early teens, Aaron was a key thinker in the development of the web. He was involved in the development of the news feed format RSS, the Creative Commons organisation, and social news website Reddit. His work later focused on sociology, civic awareness and social activism and in 2009 he launched the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
Aaron was both a high school and university drop-out, and later became a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption. He went on to found online advocacy group Demand Progress, and led it to have over one million members. Aaron was also a leading voice in successfully defeating the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, more commonly known as SOPA.
When I interviewed Aaron in 2010, his raw passion for social justice was clear.
“I feel very strongly that it’s not enough to just live in the world as it is, to just take what you’re given and follow the things that adults told you to do, and that your parents told you to do and the society tells you to do. I think that you should always be questioning. I take this very scientific attitude that everything you’ve learned is just provisional, that it’s always open to recantation or refutation or questioning, and I think the same applies to society.”
“ I felt growing up, I slowly had this process of realising that all the things around me were just the natural way that things were the way things would be. They weren’t natural at all. They were things that could be changed and things that more importantly were wrong and should change. Once I realised that, there was really no going back. I couldn’t fool myself into saying I’ll just go and work for a business and ignore all that. Once I realised that there were real serious problems, fundamental problems, that I could do something to address I didn’t see a way to forget that.” he said in response to asking him about his motivations for becoming an activist.
It was this same passion and determination that ultimately landed Aaron in trouble.
Arrest and criminal proceedingsIn January 2011, Aaron was arrested by MIT police, after downloading academic journals from the JSTOR database, which supporters say he was preparing to make freely available online. He was later charged with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. He faced a 35 year prison sentence and up to $1 million in fines in what many say was a witch-hunt designed to make an example of Aaron and to crack down on net freedom activists.
On January 11th 2013, two days after the prosecution denied his lawyer’s second offer of a plea bargain, Aaron was found dead in his New York apartment.
Upon hearing the news, Tim Berners-Lee tweeted;
’Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.’
Following the announcement by the coroner that Aaron’s death was a suicide, his family issued a statement which drew attention to the role of both the US justice system and MIT in his death.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
The internet is at the heart of the modern battle for democracyIn June 2013, Aaron Swartz was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame. His death is a tragedy and there are many lessons to take from it, including the need to support those who may need help.
The internet is at the heart of the modern battle for democracy. There are active forces which seek to invade our privacy and control our information. This is clear from recent news of government spying, and the continued attempts to downgrade Ireland’s freedom of information provisions. Groups like Digital Rights Ireland, and websites like TheStory.ie, are therefore all the more important. As Aaron himself said “information is power and like all power there are those who want to keep it for themselves”.
In his short life, Aaron showed what was possible when people get organised to affect change. His legacy continues to affect hundreds of millions of internet users each day. It is important his work continues and to believe that change is possible.
…because I had believed for so long that change was impossible it precluded me from taking any actions that could have caused that change and so I think the first step for everyone out there is to believe that you can actually accomplish something because once you believe that you’re half way to actually doing something.
– Aaron Swartz
Published in The Huffington Post
Irish charities are entering 2014 in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. According to Fundraising Ireland, donations to charities were down 40 percent over the Christmas period. The CEO of Bóthar says his organization received hate mail. St. Vincent De Paul, a port of last call for many in need, reported a severe drop in donations, while their Cork city branch out of Christmas toys for the first time ever.
This situation follows a series of revelations concerning the Central Remedial Clinic and a culture of salary 'top-ups' and excessive pay in various hospital and charitable organizations throughout the country. At a time when people are struggling to get by, many are rightfully outraged that their trust has been abused by boards and management who took their support for granted.
All of this was a time bomb waiting to happen in a multi-billion euro sector which remains unregulated despite years of political promises and calls for regulation from within the charity sector.
According to the now defunct Irish Non Profits Exchange, there is an estimated 12,000 non-profit organizations in Ireland, 7,000 of them with charity status. The sector employs more than 100,000 people and has over 560,000 volunteers and a total annual income of approximately €6 billion. Non-profits and charities are involved in hospitals, education, homelessness, disability, youth work, overseas aid, sport, culture, the arts, the environment, social justice advocacy and more. They are largely supported by taxpayers money and through donations from a public who, according to the World Giving Index, are the most generous in Europe.
The recent scandals are causing important and timely questions to be asked. Charities don't deserve our hard earned money just because they say they're doing good things. We need to know what they're doing, why they're doing it, and to see proof that they're actually delivering on promises. At the heart of this is the need for transparency and openness, and for clear and honest communications. Publishing accounts online should be a basic requirement, but charities should go further and consider publishing information such as salaries and regular progress reports.
Most charities have nothing to hide. The vast majority of them are small and fledgling operations often reliant on volunteers and interns. Others have just a few staff and in most organizations staff pay is modest, with many existing on temporary contracts with no pensions or financial perks. Salary levels of €25,000-€35,000 are the norm in most charities and according to a survey by The Wheel, the average charity sector CEO salary among their 1000 members is €59,000 with no 'top-ups' or pensions.
I have worked in the charity sector for over a decade and know for a fact that the majority of people involved are hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and caring people who are dedicated to making a difference. They have chosen work in a challenging sector where burn-out is rife due to the constant pressures of trying to solve difficult social problems while trying to keep their organizations afloat amid government cutbacks of up to 50 percent. This has been on top of the decline in public donations and the winding down of Ireland's two major foundations, the One Foundation and the Atlantic Philanthropies. This has led to wage cuts and lay-offs, and many charities have folded or are at risk of doing so.
Like every other sector of Irish society, the charity sector needs massive reform. There is no doubt that increased scrutiny is required and that regulation and better coordination and communication must happen as a matter of urgency. The debate on appropriate salary levels for management in all sectors of the economy must also continue. €100,000+ salaries are rare in the charity sector but where they do exist it is important to ask if they are deserved at a time when so many are underpaid or not paid at all. This debate must also consider that charities are like any other organization and often need to pay for skilled staff and to cover administration costs if they are to do their job effectively.
In the midst of this debate, it is vital that we ask why so many vital services are being provided by charities while, in other countries this work is normally considered a core function of the state. This leads to basic services like schools and hospitals having to beg from an already struggling public in order to keeping going. Meanwhile, many hugely profitable corporations get away with paying little or no tax in a country where philanthropic and corporate giving levels are relatively low.
For now, it is important to treat charities like any other body, to challenge them to be more transparent and demand justice where abuses have occurred. There should also be an onus on supporters to be more discerning, to undertake questioning and research before committing support.
It is essential that we value and celebrate the great work that non-profits and charities do. Charities remain essential the functioning of our country and to important relief and development work in places like Syria and the Philippines. The massive decline in donations is having a real and devastating effect on vital supports for vulnerable people everywhere. It is understandable that some trust has been broken, but we should keep perspective and remember not to punish the good work of many because of the sins of the few.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.