Remembering Internet Activist Aaron Swartz

This past Friday Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26. In his short but remarkable life, Aaron had helped technologies many of us use every day, including RSS, Markdown and Reddit.

Aside from his substantial technical contributions, Aaron also made a lasting contributions to web and data freedom. He co-founded the non-profit group Demand Progress, which played an instrumental role in the fight against SOPA. He fought against public data being placed behind paywalls, and used his technical know-how to compromise such systems. In 2009 he downloaded and released over two million documents from PACER, the access system that charges the public $.10 per page for access US federal court records. In 2011 he downloaded nearly 5 million articles from the JSTOR academic journal archive (made up of articles produced through public funding sources) by taking advantage of his access to MIT’s computer network.

The US government took a severe view of Aaron’s alleged theft of JSTOR documents, arresting him and levelling hacking charges against him that could carry millions of dollars of fines and over 50 years of jail time. Despite the fact that JSTOR declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, the US government pursued the case aggressively, reportedly declining any plea bargain that would see Aaron forgo jail time. Larry Lessig and others have publicly shamed the US government for their overzealous attempts to label Aaron a felon. As one would expect, the enormous strain of the pending court case contributed to Aaron’s choice to take his own life.

Aaron was a brilliant mind that would have no doubt continued to make substantial contributions to the web and beyond, and we’re poorer for losing him.


  1. Thanks, Jack. It was interesting to see this story largely ignored by mainstream media, but all over the social web over the weekend.

    Mathew Ingram tracked the discussion and has lots of key links from prominent Internet thought leaders over on GigaOm:

  2. Only two years ago we ran the story here on Slaw of his taking of JSTOR articles: Aaron Swartz and Theft of Scholarship, and followed up an aspect of the JSTOR angle a year later. Today’s post makes a sad conclusion.

  3. Great links to include with the discussion – thanks Connie and Simon!

  4. And this just in: the U.S. prosecuting attorney has dismissed the case against him by the U.S. government:

    Hat tip @TimKarr on Twitter.

  5. I’ve read a fair bit since hearing the news on Saturday morning, and I’m not sure I’ve got any better perspective. There’s just no sense in it. Aaron was a poor choice to make an example of: twenty-six years old, battling depression. By all accounts, fragile. Anyone facing those charges would crumble.

    As to the aggression of the prosecution, and the larger picture, see Scott Greenfield’s piece. It doesn’t discuss clinical depression, which so far seems underplayed as a contributing factor, but otherwise offers as solid a discussion as I’ve seen.

    Weinberger makes another key point. Swartz was not a hacker, at least as traditional media know the word hacker. He was a builder, and his list of projects were an impressive contribution to today’s web. Lots of media stories out there were calling him a ‘hacktivist’. More unnecessary spin towards criminalizing the man’s character.

    I didn’t know Aaron, but was an admirer. Not that I was always in his corner on what information should be free. But sometimes I was… And besides, healthy societies discuss these types of differences. Not lock them up for 30 years, 50 years! (Really? Insane numbers…) Or bully them to death.

    Aaron Swartz had far more to leave on this earth. This whole situation is both tragic and ridiculous.

  6. I agree, Steve. I like to think of what he did as civil disobedience in the tradition of Henry Thoreau, not hacking.

  7. A lot of tributes and opinion pieces about Aaron Swartz have been written, but I particularly like this op/ed piece from college librarian Barbara Fister:

    She talks about open access, and I particularly like her conclusion:

    But I’d rather honor a young idealistic man’s memory by reflecting on what we can do, as scholars and as librarians and as people who have a special role in society to make new knowledge and share it. We’ve made some progress on open access in recent months. We need to make more. If we think our research is really not important, that only eggheads at universities with well-funded libraries have any interest in it, if what we do with our lives actually doesn’t matter, then we can go on as we are. Or we can figure out how to take all the time and money we are already pouring into this stuff as if lives depend on it and set it free. It would make the world a better place.

    Hat tip Mies Martin on Twitter.

  8. Yesterday The Economist published one of the best obituaries about Aaron that I’ve read thus far:

  9. As someone whose best friend is presently serving 5.5 years for something that barely rates as a “crime” in the United States, which is more like, at best professional misconduct, I can attest to the prosecutorial overreach of the U.S. government. U.S. criminal law and its punishments are beyond reason. I’m very glad and thankfull that my friend was able to withstand the psychologicals pressures put on him and he didn’t do himself in. I’m also glad he will be out and hopefully able to rebuild his life within a short span of time.

    For the record, he was facing 20 years to life in prison. His crime, perscribing pain medication. Needless to say, as a man with pre-school young children and another 40 -50 years of life ahead of him, he pleaded guilty to the totally unrelated offence of money laundering.