Aaron Swartz was the founder of Demand Progress, which launched the campaign against the Internet censorship bills (SOPA/PIPA) and now has over a million members. He was also a Contributing Editor to The Baffler and on the Council of Advisors to The Rules.
He was a frequent television commentator and the author of numerous articles on a variety of topics, especially the corrupting influence of big money on institutions including nonprofits, the media, politics, and public opinion. From 2010-11, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. He also served on the board of Change Congress, a good government nonprofit.
He has also developed the site theinfo.org. His landmark analysis of Wikipedia, Who Writes Wikipedia?, has been widely cited. Working with Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee at MIT, he helped develop and popularize standards for sharing data on the Web. He also coauthored the RSS 1.0 specification, now widely used for publishing news stories.
His piece with photographer Taryn Simon, Image Atlas (2012), is has been featured in the New Museum. In 2007, he led the development of the nonprofit Open Library, an ambitious project to collect information about every book ever published. He also cofounded the online news site Reddit, where he released as free software the web framework he developed, web.py.
Stopping SOPA / PIPA
(Late 2011) Swartz was so frustrated with congressional willingness to break the Internet on Hollywood's behalf that he created a group to channel online outrage into political activism.
Aaron got so angry he went back and somehow started a new organization called Demand Progress... In two weeks he put together a campaign organization and it did things differently. They were very good at figuring out the relationship between a complicated piece of law and a complicated piece of technology and explaining that to the general community.
They rallied events and they sent out these e-mails with a link to a page that had only two or three incredibly simple -- sometimes overly simplified, sometimes just nailing it in two sentences -- descriptions of the problem and a giant graphic saying "Take Action."
Immediately an estimated 10,000 websites went dark and more than 7 million people signed a Google.com petition opposing two controversial copyright enforcement bills, opponents of the bills said there's more work to do.
And overnight he got close to a million people engaged in fighting this thing. Later on when we had a bigger coalition and more groups, everyone was able to sort of learn the campaign lessons. Demand Progress was one primary forces during these few weeks when many thought this bill was going to sail out of committee and sail through the 2010 Congress. Every American citizen would be living with SOPA or PIPA.
January 18th, 2012 was the largest online protest in history to stop the internet censorship bills, SOPA & PIPA. On January 20th, Congress shelved the bills indefinitely. Aaron played a very large role in helping stop SOPA, to the point that I'm not sure the bills would have been stopped without his help.
An incredible victory for freedom, meanwhile...
Aaron Swartz was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.
Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy” and said “graybeards approached him with awe.”
But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents.
The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like Carl Malamud, the founder of public.resource.org, have long argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense. Joining Mr. Malamud’s efforts to make the documents public by posting legally obtained files to the Internet for free access, Mr. Swartz wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.
The government shut down the free library program, and Mr. Malamud feared that legal trouble might follow even though he felt they had violated no laws. As he recalled in a newspaper account, “I immediately saw the potential for overreaction by the courts.” He recalled telling Mr. Swartz: “You need to talk to a lawyer. I need to talk to a lawyer.”
Mr. Swartz recalled in a 2009 interview, “I had this vision of the feds crashing down the door, taking everything away.” He said he locked the deadbolt on his door, lay down on the bed for a while and then called his mother.
The federal government investigated but did not prosecute.
Apparently, Mr. Swartz went beyond that, according to a federal indictment. In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at M.I.T. by means that included gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.
Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a United States attorney, pressed on, saying that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Founded in 1995, JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is nonprofit, but institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a subscription that bundles scholarly publications online. JSTOR says it needs the money to collect and to distribute the material and, in some cases, subsidize institutions that cannot afford it. On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.
Mr. Malamud said that while he did not approve of Mr. Swartz’s actions at M.I.T., “access to knowledge and access to justice have become all about access to money, and Aaron tried to change that. That should never have been considered a criminal activity.”
On January 11th 2013, Aaron Swartz ended his life by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment.
Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future.