Aaron Swartz

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Aaron Swartz 256.jpg
Photo by Doc Searls
Birthname Aaron Hillel Swartz
Date of Birth November 8, 1986
Birth Place Highland Park, Illinois, US
Nationality American
Occupation Software Developer, Writer, Internet Activist
Biography Best known as internet hacktivist.
Photo = Aaron Swartz on One Web
Day, at the Berkman Center Source=http://www.flickr.com/
photos/docsearls/8392551787/ 2006_09_22_aaron-swartz-owd_4 Photo credit = Doc Searls

Aaron Swartz (November 8, 1986 - January 11, 2013) was a computer programmer, entrepreneur, writer, political organizer and activist. He is best known for his early partnership in Reddit, his development of RSS feeds and the Markdown publishing format, and his involvement in the development of the organization Creative Commons. In addition, Swartz have done research on and participated in online activism particularly on Reddit. His most infamous act occurred when he was discovered illegally downloading thousands of academic articles from JSTOR, with intent to distribute the research to the public, resulting in his arrest and federal prosecution facing 35 years in prison. During the ensuing legal prosecution, Swartz committed suicide.[1]

Life and works

Swartz was born in Highland Park, Illinois and was the son of a Robert and Susan Swartz. Robert Swartz founded the software firm Mark Williams Company, which is where Swartz become first introduced to computers, programming and the Internet.

When Swartz was 13, he was awarded the ArsDigita Prize which was given to students that create a useful and collaborative website. Throughout his time at Stanford University, Swartz blogged about his experiences, specifically his role in creating the organization Creative Commons and an assortment of other topics [2].

During his time at Stanford, Swartz developed RSS feeds as a way to aggregate information from the Internet and easily access and track that information and content. Swartz was involved heavily in the campaign for internet openness and against censorship in the mid-2000s when bills such as SOPA and PIPA were being proposed. In a similar vein, Swartz worked on the Internet Archives' Open Library and Creative Commons, both of which are concerned with information access and freedom. [3] It is clear that Swartz made it his mission in many ways to open information and allow equity in information.

Swartz's Manifesto

Below is the Manifesto that Swartz wrote back in 2008 regarding his personal beliefs on how information should be shared with all and accessible to all:

"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. 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.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

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.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

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. Will you join us?"

-Aaron Swartz July 2008, Eremo, Italy [4].

Legal Troubles & Death

Swartz's was discovered to be downloading massive quantities of academic literature from JSTOR while he had an academic login credential from MIT. [5] While JSTOR opted not to press charges, nevertheless Swartz was prosecuted by the government for his attempt to illegally share these articles. During the course of the proceedings, in fact right after Swartz's attempt to reduce his sentence was rejected, Swartz was found dead by suicide.


Swartz legal cases and death made him a figure who received a lot of news covers. Following his death news agencies revered to Swartz as an "online icon" for making information available to the public [6]. As well the Associated Press called out Swartz's legal case for highlighting "society's uncertain evolving view of how to treat people who break into computer systems and share data data not to enrich themselves, but to make it available to others". Mary Jo White, the former U.S. Attorney for the southern District of New York asked the case's prosecutor to drop the charges. [7] As a whole the internet continues to remember and honor Aaron Swartz for all that he did.

Ethical Discussion

Obviously, the death of someone is tragic. However, disagreeing with Swartz's actions does not mean necessarily that there is agreement in the methods that the government went about prosecuting him. In fact, the reaction to the Swartz situation lead to revision in laws regarding internet usage. However, there is still discussion to be had and questions to be raised regarding the morality and ethics behind Swartz's actions and the underlying sentiment behind prosecuting him for those actions. Without a doubt, Swartz's death is a tragedy and the prosecution went too far. This being said, it is important to consider reasoning on both sides.


The work and labor put into academic research articles is time-consuming, difficult, and requires high levels of education, skill, and attention to detail. In addition, it is the case that many academic studies require significant investment in funding, and the knowledge created from academia is in many senses of the word, not free. Additionally, plagiarism and a lack of being credited with work is a concern that could have been felt. Intellectual property is difficult to protect because ideas are fluid, and information should be accessible. However, when trying to enforce the nuances of protection vs. openness, boundaries can often be crossed. I think it can both be true that Swartz was acting illegally and preventing proper compensation from reaching back to researchers, as well as true that he was unfairly punished for his actions.


Information is often power. Knowing what is out there in the world can enable people to organize movements, educate themselves on issues they care about, access services and resources they may need, form community and relationships, and generally elevate their circumstances in myriad ways. Swartz understood and agreed with this philosophy, liberating data and information throughout his career. The Internet has been discussed as a democratizing force, and what is more democratizing than allowing equality of opportunity of access to information from all walks of life? Additionally, what could be less democratizing than censorship, whether that censorship is literally striking words and editing content, or it takes a form of simply restricting the flow of information, a separation between the information rich and the information poor, often mirroring the economic rich and economic poor of our current social strata. Swartz's actions served to reduce these gaps, reinforcing the openness and exchange that is valued.


  1. Yearwood Dubkin, Pauline., February 22, 2013 "Brilliant Life, Tragic Death"., The Chicago Jewish News https://web.archive.org/web/20131017101458/http://chicagojewishnews.com/story.htm?sid=1&id=255829
  2. Lessing Lawrence., January 12, 2013., "Remembering Aaron Swartz", https://creativecommons.org/2013/01/12/remembering-aaron-swartz/
  3. Internet Hall of Fame, Aaron Swartz
  4. Swartz, Aaron. Full Text of "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto", archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamjuly2008_djvu.txt
  5. O’Sullivan, Michael. “Aaron Swartz, New Technologies, and the Myth of Open Access.” SpringerLink, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137547613_5.
  6. Dobuzinskis, Alex. and Huffstutter, J., "Internet activist, Programmer Aaron Swartz dead at 26", January 12, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/net-us-swartz-internet/internet-activist-programmer-aaron-swartz-dead-at-26-idUSBRE90B0G320130113
  7. "Swartz' death fuels debate over computer crime" January 14, 2013., https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2013/01/13/swartz-death-fuels-debate-over-computer-crime/1831721/