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Aaron Swartz: Activist, Entrepreneur, and Visionary Who Changed the Internet Forever

Aaron Swartz: Activist, Entrepreneur, and Visionary Who Changed the Internet Forever

Aaron Swartz was not just a brilliant computer programmer and entrepreneur, he was also a passionate advocate for a free and open internet, a prolific writer, and a fearless activist. He co-founded Reddit, helped develop RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons, and web.py, and fought against censorship, corruption, and injustice. He also faced relentless persecution from the US government for his attempts to liberate academic data from behind paywalls. He tragically took his own life at the age of 26, leaving behind a legacy of innovation, inspiration, and courage.

Early Life and Achievements

Aaron Swartz was born on November 8, 1986 in Chicago, Illinois. He showed an extraordinary talent for computers from a young age. At 13, he won the ArsDigita Prize for creating an online encyclopedia of information about people. At 14, he was part of the team that developed RSS, a web feed format that allows users to subscribe to updates from websites. At 15, he published a peer-reviewed paper in IEEE Intelligent Systems magazine about MusicBrainz, a semantic web service for music metadata.

Swartz dropped out of Stanford University after one year to pursue his own projects. He joined the development team of Creative Commons, an organization that creates alternative copyright licenses for online content. He also created web.py, a minimalist web framework for Python programmers. He co-founded Reddit, one of the most popular social news aggregation websites in the world. He sold Reddit to Condé Nast Publications in 2006 and became more involved in activism.

Activism and Persecution

Swartz was deeply committed to the ideals of democracy, transparency, and social justice. He founded or co-founded several online groups and campaigns that aimed to promote these values, such as Watchdog.net, Open Library, DeadDrop (later SecureDrop), Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Demand Progress, and Fix Congress First. He also worked as a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption.

Swartz believed that information should be freely accessible to everyone, especially scientific and academic knowledge that is funded by public money. He opposed the privatization and commodification of information by corporations and institutions that charge exorbitant fees for access. He also opposed the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a controversial bill that would have given the US government and copyright holders more power to censor and shut down websites accused of hosting or linking to pirated content.

In 2008, Swartz downloaded and released about 20% of the documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a database of federal court documents that charges users per page. He used a Perl script and a library card to access the database through a free trial program at a public library. He intended to make the documents publicly available for free through RECAP, a Firefox extension that he helped create. The FBI investigated him but did not press charges.

In 2011, Swartz downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles from JSTOR (Journal Storage), a digital library that charges users for access. He used a laptop connected to the MIT network in an unmarked closet. He intended to make the articles publicly available for free through file-sharing networks or websites. JSTOR detected his activity and blocked his IP address. MIT police arrested him on January 6, 2011 and seized his laptop.

Swartz was charged by federal prosecutors with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), carrying a maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. The prosecution was led by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who said that “stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar”. Swartz rejected a plea deal that would have required him to plead guilty to 13 felonies and serve six months in prison. He maintained his innocence and prepared to go to trial.

On January 11, 2013, two days after the prosecution rejected his counter-offer of pleading guilty to one misdemeanor charge in exchange for no prison time, Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He had hanged himself with his belt. His death sparked an outpouring of grief and anger from his family, friends, colleagues, supporters, and admirers around the world. Many blamed the US government for its disproportionate and vindictive prosecution of Swartz. Some called him a martyr and a hero for his cause.

Legacy and Impact

Aaron Swartz left behind a remarkable body of work that continues to influence and inspire millions of people. His code, writings, speeches, projects, and ideas are widely available online for anyone to access and use. His vision of a free and open internet remains relevant and urgent in an era of increasing surveillance, censorship, and inequality.

Swartz was posthumously honored with several awards and recognitions for his contributions to society. He received the American Library Association’s James Madison Award for championing public access to government information; the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award for advancing freedom on the internet; and the Internet Hall of Fame induction for being among those who have made significant contributions to the development and advancement of the internet.

The Tragic End of Internet Prodigy and Activist Aaron Swartz

 

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