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A tribute to Aaron Swartz, the young hero of freedom for information, driven to his death on Friday by the US Department for Justice

RIP Aaron Swartz, you will not be forgotten. 

Aaron Swartz was (amongst many, many other things) the co-author of RSS, the fantastic technology I described only in my last blog post as the technology that should be your New Year’s resolution to adopt:

“If you make one New Year’s resolution this year, make it to throw out the papers and switch to sources you trust using RSS. I guarantee you, you won’t look back.”

Swartz developed RSS at the age of 14, before going on to help create Creative Commons and drop out of Stanford to help build Reddit. While in school, Swartz developed a working free online encyclopaedia that anyone could access and edit, long before Wikipedia was created. Swartz was instrumental in the fight against SOPA that ended almost exactly a year ago. His speech mid-last year leaves behind a deathly poignant message:

“It is hard to believe this story, hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing, hard to remember that it 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 it will 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 politician’s 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.”

An excerpt from Aaron Swartz’s keynote speech in Washington DC on May 21st2012, which you can view below.

A few hours ago Aaron’s family released a public statement, blaming the US Department of Justice for their persecution of Aaron as well as MIT for not standing up to them:

“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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

In 2009, Swartz downloaded and publicly released around 20% of the PACER database of publicly available United States federal court documents. Swartz felt that it was unfair that the public should have to pay for access to public court documents that were paid for by the public at great expense.  He was investigated and harassed by the FBI, but never charged.  Swartz also believed it wrong that scholarly research, often funded by the public should be locked way from the public behind paywalls that academic institutions must pay inordinate sums to access, in spite of the fact that the work is actually created by the same academics who never see a penny of this money. Two years after the pacer hack in 2011, Swartz downloaded the contents of the JSTOR database of scholarly research. The prosecution claimed Swartz aimed to distribute the database over P2P networks, though this was never proved. Swarts was released on bail of $100,000 with charges carrying a potential prison term of up to 35 years and a fine of up to $1 million. This federal prosecution remains bizarre, for no serious crime is alleged by any party as JSTOR announced publicly they did not wish to prosecute. The crime amounted to checking too many books out of a library he himself had access to. Last summer Ars Technica covered the absurd developments in the case that resulted in Swartz facing potentially decades in prison.

The Guardian also have an obiturary of Swartz that pulls no punches. This is the first obituary I have ever written, as this is the first death of a public figure who I have never known, that has profoundly saddened me as the death of Aaron Swartz has done. With Swartz’ talent, he could have made huge amounts of money for himself. Instead he selflessly spent his time campaigning for freedom of information and risked everything on his mission to liberate data. His persecution by those who are meant to uphold justice is one of the most unjust stories of our age. I’ll leave you with thewords of Aaron himself, on how to live like he did:

Words of Advice

What’s the secret? How can I boil down things I do into pithy sentences that make myself sound as good as possible? Here goes

1. Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity.

2. Say yes to everything. I have a lot of trouble saying no, to an pathological degree — whether to projects or to interviews or to friends. As a result, I attempt a lot and even if most of it fails, I’ve still done something.

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3. Assume nobody else has any idea what they’re doing either. A lot of people refuse to try something because they feel they don’t know enough about it or they assume other people must have already tried everything they could have thought of. Well, few people really have any idea how to do things right and even fewer are to try new things, so usually if you give your best shot at something you’ll do pretty well.

I followed these rules. And here I am today, with a dozen projects on my plate and my stress level through the roof once again.

Every morning I wake up and check my email to see which one of my projects has imploded today, which deadlines I’m behind on, which talks I need to write, and which articles I need to edit.

Maybe, one day, you too can be in the same position. If so, I hope I’ve done something to help.”

Update (13/01/2013:

In honour of Aaron Swartz, academics are now uploading their papers using Twitter hastag #PDFTribute. A scraper has already popped up to database the links: You can support Aaron Swartz’ mission by signing the following petition to the Whitehouse which now has 52,848 signatures: Require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research. A Whitehouse petition has also been created to: Remove United States District Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.

FollowSimon Oxenham@Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list, for weekly analysis of science and psychology news. 


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