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Aaron Swartz: a digital folk hero

Aaron Swartz in 2009 at a small wiki meetup in Boston, MA
Photo provided by Ragesoss / Flickr
Aaron Swartz in 2009 at a small wiki meetup in Boston, MA

Aaron Swartz, a 26 year old online open access rights activist, was found dead in his apartment Friday, Jan. 11. Most people had never heard of this young man before his death; he was just another invisible giant of the technology world. Swartz was working with the official World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a major contributor by the age of 14. He helped author the RSS 1.0 specification which is used every day for blogs and news sites. After a year at Stanford University, he left to start Infogami, a web platform which eventually merged with Reddit, a popular online social news site. When Reddit was acquired by the parent company of Wired magazine, Swartz moved on to help start Jottit, a free service which allows users to quickly create simple web pages.

At about this time, Swartz began to focus more heavily on civil rights issues. He volunteered as an editor for Wikipedia, and ran for the board of directors. In 2007, he led the creation of Open Library, an open access online book database and repository of public domain works. He was part of the technical team for Creative Commons, a collection of media resources which are free for the public to use without licensing fees. In 2011, Swartz pulled together millions of online citizens to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which many considered a threat to the freedoms of the Internet. Without Swartz’ influence, SOPA may very well have passed quietly into law without the online community even becoming aware of its existence.

“Without Swartz’ influence, SOPA may very well have passed quietly into law without the online community even becoming aware of its existence.”

¬†Even at a young age, Swartz showed a knack for bringing people together and getting this done. In the words of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, as reported by RememberAaronSw.com, “I first came across [Swartz] online in the hacker community ... this guy, aaronsw, turned up and he introduced himself. He sent a message to the list saying: ‘Hi, I’m Swartz. I’m not very good at programming but I think what you’re doing is cool and I’d like to help.’ And he started doing all kinds of things. He didn’t just talk, he coded! ... He also started organizing people, getting people to agree about how stuff should be done.”

Swartz became concerned with the way in which public data was locked behind paid subscriptions or prohibitive access fees. In 2006, he acquired the Library of Congress bibliographic data and posted it to Open Library. In 2008, he downloaded 20 percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database and also released it free on the Internet. Swartz contended that these were all government produced documents, and the public had a right to access them for free. He wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008 where he called for the capture and free release of public documents. A phrase near the end of the manifesto, “There is no justice in following unjust laws,” is reminiscent of the writings of Henry Thoreau, notable civil rights activist of the 1800s.

Swartz’ Final Chapter

As a research fellow at Harvard University, Swartz had free access to the university’s academic journal subscriptions. He placed a laptop in one of MIT’s closets and began an automated download of JSTOR, a digital library containing millions of academic papers. Swartz had intended to release the papers to the public through a peer to peer (P2P) download although he was apprehended before he could complete his plan. JSTOR declined to press charges against Swartz after he agreed to turn over the downloaded papers. The state prosecutors released him with a stern warning and $100,000 bail. They eventually dropped all charges against him.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, in the summer of 2011, chose to re-open the case at the federal level, raising the number of charges from four to 13. Ultimately, the prosecution offered Swartz six months in a low-security facility if he pleaded guilty to all charges. Swartz refused this offer and was set to go to trial later this year. He faced up to 35 years of jail time and a $1 million fine. On Friday, Jan. 11, Swartz committed suicide.

In response, the tech community is asking hard questions about our current computer fraud laws. A fine of $1 million with 35 years of jail time is a harsh penalty for a crime that would not have been a felony if it had been committed without the use of computers. After more than 48,000 people signed a petition, the U.S. House of Representatives opened a committee to investigate the actions of the federal prosecution.

Perhaps Swartz’s legacy of civil rights activism will live on, perhaps others will step forward to continue his passion for a world where knowledge is truly free. In September of 2011, JSTOR partially opened its database to the public. In January of 2012, individuals were given greater access, limited to three articles every two weeks. With Swartz’ death, the public has become even more aware of issues related to the open access movement.