Aaron Swartz: To go out innocent

aaron swartz

The news worldwide has been abuzz lately with the sudden and unexpected death by suicide of Internet grand stander Aaron Swartz of Reddit fame. The exit that he chose for himself will be a matter of debate for years to come, but one thing can be concurred upon – he chose to go out with control of his fate, and in a way, securing and safeguarding his own legacy. Aaron Swartz was no old geezer or multi billionaire retiree. He was a young American writer, archivist, computer programmer, Internet activist, and political organizer, barely 26 years old. To understand him and his legacy in death, you have to understand how Aaron saw the world, and how he lived his life.

Swartz was born into a Jewish family in Chicago and was introduced to computers very early in life, in part because of his father, who had founded his own software company. At the tender age of 13, Aaron won himself a chance to go to MIT to meet all the Internet big shots by making an award winning non-commercial website. By the time he was 14, Swartz was already working with various networking standard experts as a working group member in the authoring of RSS 1.0 specification. Going to a small private school in Winnetka, he had enough time to serve as a member on the RDF working core group at W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). He is credited with authoring RFC 3870, which defines the RDF XML content types.

Only miniscule percentiles of prospective students make it to Stanford. Of these, it is only the rarest of souls that would drop out by choice within a year. Swartz falls into such an elite category of minds. Instead of continuing his education at Stanford University, he founded Infogami, a software company funded by Y Combinator’s very first Summer Founders Program. Through this, he supported not only web.py but also all the Open Library websites.

When he felt he needed more co-founders, he merged Infogami with Reddit, a marriage in 2005 that solved Reddit’s money problems with millions of users visiting the merged website every month. When in the end of 2006 Reddit was sold out to Conde Nast Publications, Aaron moved with it to San Francisco, but was unhappy with the entire setup, causing him to resign by January 2007. This year was the hardest for Swartz for a long time, with him describing himself to have been depressed and ill throughout the year.

Picking himself up, Aaron Swartz joined hands with Simon Carstensen to launch Jottit. By the fall of 2010, he was a fellow at Harvard’s Center of Ethics. His web.py Web Application framework was launched during this time, and he co-founded a progressive advocacy group by the name of Demand Progress, that organized people through email and other media to spread word and put pressure on the congress about certain targeted issues.

In early 2012, when the SOPA and PIPA were introduced in Congress in early 2012, Swartz and Demand Progress actively fought it by organizing protests across the country. And when the act was finally defeated, he defined the entire episode as part of an existing battle to define everything new in the world. He said that any new technology that instead of bringing freedom to humanity snuffs out fundamental rights must be vanquished by everyone. He credited everyone for the victory, stating that the only reason the bill was stopped was because everyone stood up together and thought of it as their own problem. He also warned people that this was one snake that would be back soon under a different name and guise.

Swartz had also been involved with Wikipedia, serving as editor till the end, and even running for the board of directors in 2006. He analyzed the Wikimedia foundation and concluded that most inputs were made by occasional members, while regular members mainly worked at the formatting part.

Now, Swartz was a stringent believer of free document access, and this finally ended up with his death. In 2008, Aaron had his first major brush with the law, when he downloaded and released about 20% of the federal court documents stored in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records or PACER database. The main reason behind this was that PACER charged exorbitant amounts of up to 8% per page for information that should have been free, as government documents are not covered by any copyright, as contended by Carl Malamud of public.resource.org fame.

Following his call for action, Aaron Swartz used a Perl script to download documents of about 19,856,160 pages and donated them to Malumad’s website, forcing PACER to re-evaluate their stratergy. Now, they still charge for their pages, but Firefox users have the option of donating documents for free using a plugin. The FBI investigated Swartz’s role in the event, and closed the case without a single charge filed.

In the fall of 2010-11, Aaron Swartz repeated his heroics on a grander scale, downloading and spreading about 4 million of JSTOR’s academic journal articles. JSTOR gives free but limited access to these articles. Downloading of so many articles from MIT ended up crashing some of JSTOR’s servers, bringing Swartz back in FBI’s focus. The FBI immediately slapped 13 charges on him and arrested him. He surrendered voluntarily, pleading not guilty to all of his charges that sounded on the right side of preposterous to begin with. He got out on bail, with JSTOR admitting they would not pursue any civil litigation.

However, the FBI continued to pressure him, with a guilty verdict assuring him serious jail time of about 35 years. They pressured him so much that in the end it came to considering a guilty plea on all counts with 6 months of jail time. Swartz admitted that it was not the jail time that perturbed him. It was the tag “felon” that his government would stick to him. In the end, seeing no way to see his legacy untarnished, Swartz decided to go out with as much respect as he could garner, with a noose around his neck on the 11th Jan 2013. Experts have criticized the FBI’s approach to the case calling it inconsiderate at the least – arresting a person for downloading too many free articles.

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