Aaron H. Swartz (8 November 1986 – 11 January 2013) was an American computer programmer, writer, political organizer and Internet activist. Swartz was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS, the website framework web.py, and the social news site Reddit, in which he was an equal partner after a merger with his Infogami company. Swartz also focused on sociology, civic awareness and social activism.
- 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.
- 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?
UTI interview (2004)
- I’m a teenage kid who’s interested in improving the world (mostly through law, politics, and technology).
This year, I’m going to try to update my weblog daily with interesting thoughts, program some interesting new website software, and work on some website projects that help people better understand what’s going on in American politics.
- I think that most people, when faced with overwhelming facts, will come around. (I know I certainly have.) But it is definitely difficult to overcome people’s entrenched beliefs, so I feel that if I only convince people that the other side is a reasonable position to take, even if they themselves don’t take it, then I’ve been a success.
It is sort of a quixotic task in that sense, but it’s also useful to me by helping clarify my ideas.
When you say something particularly controversial on the Web, you’ll get all sorts of people coming at you with arguments. Considering those arguments and seeing if they’re right or, if they’re wrong, why they’re wrong, has been very valuable in clarifying my beliefs (and similarly, I hope my challenges have helped other people clarify their beliefs).
- The law about what is stealing is very clear. Stealing is taking something away from someone so they cannot use it. There’s no way that making a copy of something is stealing under that definition.
If you make a copy of something, you’ll be prosecuted for copyright infringement or something similar — not larceny (the legal term for stealing). Stealing, like piracy and intellectual property, is another one of those terms cooked up to make us think of intellectual works the same way we think of physical items. But the two are very different.
You can’t just punish people because they took away a “potential sale”. Earthquakes take away potential sales, as do libraries and rental stores and negative reviews. Competitors also take away potential sales.
- Geeks seem a lot more willing to treat people based on what they can do rather than who they are.
This isn’t unique to kids, of course. The Internet has an amazingly liberating aspect for everyone from blacks to the blind. So perhaps that’s one reason why I’m especially concerned about draconian proposals for an “Internet Drivers License” or a crackdown on anonymity. Quite aside from the impracticality and ineffectiveness of these proposals, they could have the effect of tagging who people are, and reintroducing those indicators that the Internet has removed.
- On the one hand, I want to be very open about everything, On the other, I heavily defend people’s right to privacy. Of course, as you point out, keeping your privacy is hard because if you slip once, it’s out there forever.
I’m not sure what to say to people who want to protect their privacy except, be careful when you give out private information and think about where it could end up.
- Think deeply about things. Don’t just go along because that’s the way things are or that’s what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.
Freedom to Connect speech (2012)
- Speech at F2C:Freedom to Connect 2012 event in Washington, D.C. (21 May 2012) video as transcribed at "Freedom to Connect: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) on Victory to Save Open Internet, Fight Online Censors" at Democracy NOW! (14 January 2013)
- There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?
This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the Internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights. The freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, the freedoms our country had been built on, would be suddenly deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we had always taken for granted.
- The people rose up, and they caused a sea change in Washington — not the press, which refused to cover the story — just coincidentally, their parent companies all happened to be lobbying for the bill; not the politicians, who were pretty much unanimously in favor of it; and not the companies, who had all but given up trying to stop it and decided it was inevitable. It was really stopped by the people, the people themselves. They killed the bill dead, so dead that when members of Congress propose something now that even touches the Internet, they have to give a long speech beforehand about how it is definitely not like SOPA; so dead that when you ask congressional staffers about it, they groan and shake their heads like it’s all a bad dream they’re trying really hard to forget; so dead that it’s kind of hard to believe this story, hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing, hard to remember how this could have gone any other way. But it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare; it was all very real.
And it will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the Internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest Internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored. We can’t let that happen.
- 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. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do. They didn’t stop to ask anyone for permission. … The senators were right: The Internet really is out of control. But if we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us we didn’t actually make a difference, if we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work and it’s our job just to go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers, well, then next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.
Quotes about Swartz
- Alphabetized by authors
- Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
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. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.
- Aaron, a hero of the internet and a legend among men, was targeted by a corrupt system that sought to make an example out of him. He faced a harsher punishment than murderers, robbers, child pornographers, or even terrorist sympathizers! All for doing nothing more than downloading academic articles.
- Aarons ArkAngel, an Anonymous representative, in "Aaron Swartz and a depraved Justice System" (25 January 2013) at YouTube.
- Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win — a twisted and distorted perversion of justice — a game where the only winning move was not to play.
Anonymous immediately convened an emergency council to discuss our response to this tragedy. After much heavy-hearted discussion, the decision was upheld to engage the United States Department of Justice and its associated executive branches in a game of a similar nature, a game in which the only winning move is not to play.
- Anonymous representative, in a hacktivist message announcing Anonymous Operation Last Resort at the United States Sentencing Commission of the U.S. Department of Justice (25 January 2013) and Youtube video posted by Aarons ArkAngel.
- We’ve lost a fighter. We’ve lost somebody who put huge energy into righting wrongs. There are people around the world who take it on themselves to just try to fix the world but very few of them do it 24/7 like Aaron. Very few of them are as dedicated. So of the people who are fighting for right, and what he was doing up to the end was fighting for right, we have lost one of our own. … We’ve lost a great person. But also, we’ve lost somebody who needed to be nurtured, who needed to be protected. I didn’t work with Aaron as closely as many people here, but I got the sense that all who have known him realized that he needed to be protected. He needed to be held carefully in our hands. He needed to be nurtured. So nurturers of the world, everyone who tried to make a place safe to work or a home safe to live, anyone who listens to another, looks after another or feeds another, all parents everywhere — we’ve lost a child. And there’s nothing worse than that.
- Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.
Somewhere in there, Aaron's recklessness put him right in harm's way. Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles (many in the public domain), and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT, and though Aaron wasn't an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of that gang, and Aaron hadn't done anything with the articles (yet), so it seemed likely that it would just fizzle out.
Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on.
- From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
- Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
- I received an email from JSTOR four days before Aaron died, from the president of JSTOR, announcing, celebrating that JSTOR was going to release all of these journal articles to anybody around the world who wanted access — exactly what Aaron was fighting for. And I didn’t have time to send it to Aaron; I was on — I was traveling. But I looked forward to seeing him again — I had just seen him the week before — and celebrating that this is what had happened. So, all of us think there are a thousand things we could have done, a thousand things we could have done, and we have to do, because Aaron Swartz is now an icon, an ideal. He is what we will be fighting for, all of us, for the rest of our lives.
- Every time you saw Aaron, he was surrounded by five or 10 different people who loved and respected and worked with him. He was depressed because he was increasingly recognizing that the idealism he brought to this fight maybe wasn’t enough. When he saw all of his wealth gone, and he recognized his parents were going to have to mortgage their house so he could afford a lawyer to fight a government that treated him as if he were a 9/11 terrorist, as if what he was doing was threatening the infrastructure of the United States, when he saw that and he recognized how — how incredibly difficult that fight was going to be, of course he was depressed.
Now, you know, I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know whether there was something wrong with him because of — you know, beyond the rational reason he had to be depressed, but I don’t — I don’t — I don’t have patience for people who want to say, "Oh, this was just a crazy person; this was just a person with a psychological problem who killed himself." No. This was somebody — this was somebody who was pushed to the edge by what I think of as a kind of bullying by our government. A bullying by our government. And just as we hold people responsible when their bullying leads to tragedy, I hope Carmen Ortiz does what MIT did and … lead an investigation, ask somebody independent to look at what happened here and explain to America: Is this what the United States government is?
- I think that the best legacy that — the best tribute we can pay to Aaron’s legacy is to continue to fight as hard as we can to make this world a more just, fairer place. That’s the thing that he cared most about. And I’m going to keep doing that. … I also hope that this can serve as a wake-up call for the broader issues in the criminal justice system. It’s not just this one act. Our system is deeply, deeply unfair. And as I said earlier, millions of people suffer because of it needlessly. And I hope that — you know, in this country, it’s very hard for people to — for politicians to look weak on crime, but that’s not what this is. This is — this is about justice, and nobody should have to face what Aaron faced. And I hope we can help save people in the future.
- Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, life partner of Swartz, and head of SumOfUs.org as quoted in "Exclusive: Aaron Swartz’s Partner, Expert Witness Say Prosecutors Unfairly Targeted Dead Activist" at Democracy NOW! (17 January 2013).
- Official website
- Twitter Account
- How Web Activism Cost Aaron Swartz His Life
- "Official statement from the family and partner of Aaron Swartz", Remember Aaron Swartz, Tumblr .
- The Aaron Swartz Collection .
- Aaron Swartz at the Internet Movie Database
- Swartz, Aaron (21 May 2012), "How we stopped SOPA" (video), Freedom to Connect Conference .
- Swartz, Aaron (January 2010) (video), We can change the world .
- Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, The Internet archive, July 2008 .
- "Loss of an Internet genius," The Signpost, 14 January 2013.