The story of Aaron Swartz provokes strong feelings inside me: great sadness and intense anger. Nowadays, sacrifice is rare, and when it is made by such a young and intelligent person as Aaron, it gives you hope that maybe we are not going down the wrong path… or who knows?
Aaron’s dream was to obtain public access to the public domain, sounds simple enough? His idea was sharing knowledge for free so that all people, even those from underdeveloped countries, can have access to information. You can never know what mind will be unfolded and invent something huge for humanity. How can we obstruct this possibility? We allow corporations to profit from knowledge instead of using that information for a better world.
Short, but Fruitful Life
It is not easy to talk about what he did in his short life. Computer programmer, writer, political organizer and internet hacktivist, he served as a great example for future generations, inspiring them to make a change. Forget about society, money, or position. I am wondering how many of us would prefer to fight and stand up against what is wrong than become a millionaire.
Aaron Swartz was born on November 8, 1986 in Chicago. His father is the founder of the Mark Williams Company and also the creator of Coherent operating system. Ever since he was a kid, Swartz was excited about programing, and he was a fast learner and an autodidact. At the age of 13 he won the ArsDigita Prize, the goal of which was to build educational and non-commercial pages on the internet. The prize was a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a meeting with internet personalities. He was also one of the co-founders of RSS 1.0 when he was only 14 years old.
A year after dropping out of university he founded a software company named Infogami with help from the Y Combinator company through Summer Founders Program. In November 2005, Infogami merged with Reddit. Later in 2006, Reddit was bought by Wired Magazine and Swartz moved to San Francisco to work for them, but found himself unhappy and soon quit. He has since said he was depressed throughout 2007.
“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent,” he wrote in 2007 in a blog post titled “A Moment Before Dying.”
In 2008 he launched Watchdog.net, “the good government site with teeth” where users could access and update information about politicians. In the same year he wrote the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. The next year, due to his craving for effective activism and progressive policies, he helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (“Honor Kennedy” petitions for health care reform). One year later, he became co-founder at Demand Progress, a political advocacy group, and encouraged people online to “take action by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word” regarding civil liberties, government reform, and other issues.
In the late 2010, while he was doing research for Harvard University, Swartz downloaded a massive number of academic journals from the digital database JSTOR through MIT’s computer network. Accessing the journals required the user to pay a fee.
On Jan 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested on the Harvard campus by a U.S. Secret Service agent and MIT police. He was charged with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The penalty for all of this was 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million, more than what a rapist typically receives. This process was apparently called justice.
The prosecutors offered a six-month punishment in prison if Swartz would plead guilty. He rejected the deal and went for a trial so the prosecutors could justify their accusations. Maybe you’re wondering why he didn’t accept it. The answer is simple: accepting the plea bargain would have meant agreeing that what he had done was wrong, and that sharing knowledge was grounds for arrest.
A choice like that takes a lot of courage.
Another of his impressive accomplishments was his work to stop SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act), which would have allowed the government to close any website accused of copyright infringement. His involvement was crucial in this campaign; he and his friends made a petition on DemandProgress.org, which received 300,000 signatures. Aaron and his friends presented it to Congress, helping stop SOPA. The Electronic Frontier Foundation named this movement the biggest in the history of the internet—over 115,000 websites protested against it. Feb 11, 2012 was “The day we fight back” against mass surveillance.
“We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom”, Swartz said. Internet freedom is crucial nowadays; I consider the internet the most prevalent and powerful form of freedom of expression. Imagine a world without free internet—can you?
Unfortunately, on the evening of Jan 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead by his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, in his apartment in New York. The cause of death was suicide by hanging. His family stated that “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
In his memory, his family created a page at http://www.rememberaaronsw.com/memories/.
As stated by the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, “Sharing isn’t immoral—it’s a moral imperative!” How inspiring this idea is. Swartz helped society by fighting for open access to information. He inspires other young people to think for themselves and work toward justice. Many visionaries have had to break the law while fighting for an ideal.
History is full of people who sacrificed themselves to stand up for their beliefs. To quote one of my favourite stand-up comedians, George Carlin, “Who it is we kill? It’s always people who’ve told us to live together in harmony and try to love one another: Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln, John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, John Lennon. They all said ‘Try to live together peacefully’… Bam. Apparently we’re not ready for that.” The human race acts this way mostly because of greed, and we claim to be the most intelligent form of life on Earth. Swartz was not killed by any one person, but the system as a whole. It is painful to lose such an asset for humanity.
The system is not perfect—in fact, the world we’re living in is facing countless problems that need to be solved. That’s what Swartz was trying to do. He was fighting for what’s crucial for all of us, and we should all stand up for people like him as he stood up for us through his actions! May a mistake like this never happen again.