Remembering Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer and activist that committed suicide on January 11 at age 26 by hanging himself. Swartz was awaiting charges for illegally downloading millions of documents through from Journal Storage (JSTOR). JSTOR is a digital library mostly containing academic journals, both current and old. He used a laptop hidden in a basement network closet in MIT’s Building 16, and intended to distribute the documents for free.

After being indicted in July 2011, he moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he worked for the Avaaz Foundation, an Internet movement which seek to bring people-powered politics to decision-making. When Swartz appeared in federal court in September 2012, he pleaded not guilty to wire fraud, computer fraud and other crimes totaling 13 felony counts. If convicted, Swartz would have faced 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine. JSTOR declined to prosecute and even urged the government to drop its case against Swartz. “Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011,” said a JSTOR press release.

Technology and the Internet were mainstays of Swartz’s life from the beginning—his father, Robert Swartz, was a software executive who ran the Mark Williams Company, where Robert sold Coherent, a Unix-like operating system, from 1980 to 1995. The Swartz family owned one of the first Mac computers. At age 14, the younger Swartz co-wrote the specifications for Rich Site Summary, or Really Simple Syndication (RSS). RSS allows people to receive the latest stories on a feed without having to constantly revisit the page. Swartz also contributed to the Creative Commons movement, which works to expand the range of creative works available for others to build upon and share in a legal manner through Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons licenses allow content creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of recipients or other creators. Swartz also moved online court records from a government-run system, PACER, that were publicly available but cost a fee to access, onto a public site and spent his own money to do so.

Swartz posted on a blog, “My name is Aaron Swartz. I’m a 9th grader at the North Shore Country Day School. In the summer of 2000, I finally realized that school wasn’t working. I decided to do something about it. I’m tired of outdated teaching practices where the students don’t learn anything. I’m tired of constantly being prepared for more preparation. I want something new, something worthwhile, something better.” Swartz’s activism was apparent even at this age.

Swartz attended Stanford University, but left after a year and became a fellow at Harvard University’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. After that, he founded Infogami, which eventually merged with Reddit, one of the most popular social news sites on the Internet. Reddit was rewritten from the Lisp programming language into Python, using Swartz’s framework. Swartz was an owner of Reddit’s parent company, Not A Bug, until Conde Nast purchased the site in 2006. Swartz left and then founded Demand Progress, a group devoted to Internet activism. Demand Progress was instrumental in bringing down the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). After defeating SOPA and PIPA, Swartz found himself in the current situation that eventually caused his suicide.

Prosecutor Carmen Ortiz said, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.” Many were quick to defend Swartz. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) intervened on his behalf. “What Aaron was accused of by the government (was) essentially a serious form of computer hacking,” said ACLU senior policy analyst and technologist Christopher Soghoian. “These are the kinds of things you’d assume the government would use in a serious hacking case—identity theft, millions of credit card numbers stolen, hacking into protected government databases or corporate networks. Aaron was accused of downloading too many articles from a website that anyone connected to the MIT network could log into.”

Academics also took Swartz’s side on the matter. “From the beginning the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame,” said Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig.

“Aaron is seen as a hero. He spent a lot of time working to make the Internet a more open place,” Soghoian said. “We lost a really important person who changed the Internet in a positive way, and we all lose out by his departure.”

Swartz is survived by his father, Robert, his mother, Susan, his younger brothers Noah and Benjamin, and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

Swartz was a defender of the Internet and sought to keep it free. In the wake of recent events such as the Cybercrime Law here and abroad, we should follow Swartz’s example and take up his fight to keep the Internet a free and open place for all to access. Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz.