Who was Aaron Swartz?
Aaron Swartz, born in Chicago, Illinois, has been described as a computer programmer, political organizer, and Internet activist. During his short life, Swartz had many accomplishments including being a co-founder of the social media site Reddit, helping to develop the web feed format RSS and the website framework web.py, and become a research fellow at Harvard University in 2010. Swartz was also actively involved in the promotion of a free Internet, co-founding Demand Progress and Creative Commons. After facing federal charges of wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013 at the age of twenty-six.
Swartz had always demonstrated an aptitude for computers and programming, beginning at an early age, and he advocated for the free flow information in society. At the age of fourteen, he took part in a group that developed the RSS 1.0 web syndication specification. Swartz also founded the software company Infogami which eventually merged with Reddit in 2005 and grew into the popular social media site. Swartz also created the web.py website framework and co-founded Jottit, an online website creator application. In 2010, he became a research fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption.
Besides his programming, Swartz was an ardent activist for the Internet and free and open information sharing. He worked with Larry Lessig to develop Creative Commons, a non-profit organization devoted to the legal use and sharing of creative works. Swartz founded Watchdog.net for petitions and co-founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group that organizes people online for political change. Demand Progress also launched a famous campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Swartz spoke at a Freedom to Connect event in Washington D.C. in 2012 after the defeat of SOPA. Demand Progress acquired over 300,000 petitions against the bill along with the protests of several other websites. Swartz also developed the site theinfo.org.
On top of that, Swartz busied himself with retrieving large amounts of information and making them accessible online for free. He once acquired the complete bibliographic dataset from the Library of Congress for a fee and made it available by posting it on Open Library. In 2008, Swartz downloaded and released twenty percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database. This database contains U.S. federal court documents. The FBI decided not to press charges because the documents are a matter of public record anyway.
Swartz ran into trouble, however, when he downloaded over four million academic journal articles from the database JSTOR. JSTOR archives content from journal articles, manuscripts, and GIS systems and then distributes it online. Only those with access from an authorized institution can search the digital repository. Swartz accessed JSTOR through MIT’s computer network and downloaded the documents through a laptop connected to a networking switch in a controlled-access closet. Authorities arrested Swartz near Harvard in January of 2011.
In July of that year, a federal grand jury charged Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and the reckless damage of a protected computer. Prosecutors also claimed that Swartz intended to make the documents available on a fire-sharing site. He pleaded not guilty to all of the charges and was released on a $100,000 bail. In September 2012, Swartz was also charged with thirteen counts of felony hacking. For this alleged crimes, Swartz faced up to thirty-five years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Swartz struggled to pay his legal fees and stay float while fighting the Department of Justice. The wife of Larry Lessig, Bethina Neuefeind established and organized a site to raise money for Swartz’s defense. Wired Magazine suggested that the Department of Justice wanted to make an example of Swartz. After a two-year struggle, Swartz hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment and was found dead on January 11, 2013. His last published blog post discussed the struggle against institutional corruption, but he also wrote a significant amount about working towards optimism and encouraged his readers to value mistakes.
In the aftermath of Swartz’s death, the hactivist group Anonymous hijacked the homepage of a federal judiciary agency called the Federal Sentencing Commission. The group cited the suicide of Aaron Swartz as having crossed the line and blamed the justice department for pushing him too far. Members of the group also hacked two websites on the MIT domain and replaced them with tributes to Swartz. In an ironic twist, his suicide came only two days after JSTOR announced its release of more than 4.5 million articles to the public.
Despite his untimely death, Aaron Swartz will be remembered as someone who made a significant contribution not only to the Internet but also to the movement dedicated to an open Internet and free access to information. Swartz not only co-founded Reddit, Creative Commons, and Jottit but also worked for political change through Demand Progress and Watchdog.net. Maybe Swartz’s greatest legacy is his efforts to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act. No matter how you look at, Swartz had a large impact on the campaign for a free and open Internet.