Computer prodigy Aaron Swartz should have been celebrating his 28 years over the holidays. Yet nearly two years ago, he tragically took his own life.
He was the target of a merciless witch-hunt by the Department of Justice, ultimately choosing death over 35 years behind bars for the crime of releasing information. As someone who transformed the way we all use and love the internet, Aaron should have gotten a medal of honor, not a death sentence.
Aaron’s genius mark on the web can be traced back to the development of RSS feeds, a formula that produces a feed of whatever information one chooses to access, changing the way we filter and aggregate data. His passion for making information open source was exemplified in his partnership with Lawrence Lessig at only 15 years old, when he coded creative commons, a database devoted to growing the amount of creative works available to share and build off of. This revolutionized what was capable online, allowing people to use imagery without worrying about copyright or legal ramifications.
Perhaps Aaron’s mark will most be felt by co-founding Reddit, one of the most visited sites in the world that embodies what raw and free access looks like. After Reddit exploded, Aaron sold it for over a million dollars. But he rejected the business world, and instead put his entire being into political activism. He began openlibrary.org, a site that allows users to buy, borrow or browse every published book in the world. The project cemented his obsession with freeing the mind of humanity from its elite clutches. Sadly, it was this beautiful idea that came to define Aaron as a criminal that deserved more time in prison than murderers in the eyes of the federal government
The majority of the wealth of human knowledge is owned by a few publishing companies that hoard information and make billions off licensing fees, although most scholarly articles and journals are paid for by taxpayers through government grants. Aaron sought to change this.
He wrote about his plans to release academic journals and expressed outrage about prosecutorial overreach on the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008:
“It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy…
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture….With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past.”
His first target was JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals and books. But as he attempted to download millions of articles from JSTOR at MIT, authorities were filming him through a surveillance camera. Aaron’s altruism came at a heavy price. The footage was used to charge him with computer and wire fraud, which would have locked him up for decades.
Aaron praised the internet’s ability to give everyone a license to speak, but noted how many of those voices won’t get heard, which is why he dedicated the last year of his life leading the charge against corporate monopolization of the web with legislation like SOPA and PIPA.
Aaron Swartz sacrificed himself to better the world. His blood is on the US government’s hands for institutionalizing a two tiered justice system that immunizes criminals and bone chillingly destroys revolutionaries.
Breaking the Set on Aaron Swartz’s legacy
Please watch the documentary about Aaron that inspired me to write this tribute, called “The Internet’s Own Boy”.
The Internet’s Own Boy
Abby Martin / @AbbyMartin
Photo by flickr user Quinn Norton