A true genius in the computer world, Aaron’s relentless activism and passionate support for the freedom of information sparked a campaign that inspired millions of people to take part in fighting for their rights.
A Life Well-Lived
Aaron may have had little time on this Earth, but his actions proved that he made every single moment count. Looking at his life, we see that Aaron was truly a selfless person, dedicated to ensuring that his actions were for the benefit of mankind.
As he once said in an interview:
“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.”
Aaron Swartz was born on November 8, 1986, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the eldest child of Robert and Susan Swartz, a computer software expert and housewife, respectively. Robert founded the computer software firm “Mark Williams Company,” which created one of the first-ever operating systems for the early microchip computers of the 1980s. Robert was highly-successful in his business career, which granted the young Aaron a comfortable life.
An Early Love for Computers
Because of his father’s work in the computer industry, Aaron grew up with a strong passion for computers. Aaron was born during a time when computer technology was developing at a rapid rate, especially with the introduction of microprocessors in the early ‘80s and the dawning of the internet. Even at a very young age, Aaron was already immersed in computers, and learned a great deal about programming.
Aaron studied at the North Shore Country Day School during his elementary years. As a young student, Aaron showed great potential and excelled in his math, science and computer classes. He was what many would consider a “prodigy” for doing things with a computer that no one in his age group had done before.
A Prodigy Like No Other
When he was in the ninth grade, Aaron transferred from North Shore Country Day School to another school, and left his high school studies the following year. Afterwards, he took an exam to study college, which he easily passed.
The following year, at age fourteen, Aaron earned the privilege of joining the group that developed the web program which later became “RSS 1.0,” the web-publishing service we know today. Aaron’s work in developing RSS 1.0 was quite significant, and he is among the people that remain credited for the service’s initial creation.
At fifteen years old, Aaron joined the RDF Core Working Group at the World Wide Web Consortium, where he authored “RFC 3870,” a document designed to support the Semantic Web. That same year, Aaron also joined “Creative Commons,” a non-profit organization headed by Lawrence Lessig, the aim of which was to expand the range of available creative works so people could share and build upon them legally. Aaron also co-created “Markdown,” a mark-up standard derived from HTML, with John Gruber.
Infogami Partners with Reddit
In 2001, Aaron entered Stanford University, where he took up Computer Programming as his primary course. During his freshman year, Aaron showcased his talent and tremendous potential for success by founding the software company “Infogami” while attending the first-ever Summer Founders Program hosted by Y Combinator, a company that provides capital to potential startup companies.
In 2005, following the advice of Y Combinator’s organizers, Aaron merged Infogami with Reddit. Prior to this, Infogami had been used primarily to support the Open Library Project. Initially, there was some hesitation by Reddit in acquiring Infogami due to concerns about potential profit; indeed, after the launch of the Infogami-powered Reddit service in November, they found it quite difficult to generate income. As time went by, however, it became more popular until over one-million users were visiting the site every month.
In 2006, Reddit was purchased by Conde Nast Publications, the company which printed the famous “Wired” magazine, resulting in Aaron having to work with the magazine and move with his company to San Francisco. Eventually, Aaron left his job at Conde Nast Publications after realizing that office life was “uncongenial.” The following year, in 2007, Aaron collaborated with budding internet entrepreneur, Simon Carstensen, to start Jottit.
Sometime in 2006, Aaron received the complete bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress. He also found that the Library of Congress charged fees to access this dataset, in spite of it being a government document which was not copyright-protected within the United States. Because of this, Aaron shared the bibliographic dataset in “OpenLibrary,” making it freely available to everyone. Aaron’s actions were approved by the Copyright Office, which saw no wrong in what he did.
From Entrepreneur to Activist
In 2008, Aaron downloaded around 2.7 million court documents that were being stored in the Public Access to Court Electronics Records (a.k.a. PACER) database and made them available to the public for free. Although his actions drew the attention of the FBI, the bureau ultimately refrained from pressing charges because the documents were public in the first place. Aaron was supported by Carl Malamud, founder of the non-profit organization “Public.Resource.Org,” who contested early on that the documents were supposed to be free (the documents were being sold by PACER for eight cents per page).
Aaron’s time developing internet software and working with Creative Commons opened his eyes to a striking truth: in spite of the potential of this vast array of information to change the world for the better, most of the world’s population cannot access the information because a privileged few prevent it from being shared freely. Aaron spoke about this in an interview:
“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.”
Realizing he wanted to change the situation, Aaron started to shift his focus from entrepreneurship to activism, using the skills he learned from previous experiences to help promote freedom of information. In 2009, Aaron became part of the team that launched the “Progressive Change Campaign Committee,” and delivered thousands of “Honor Kennedy” petition signatures to the legislators of Massachusetts to fulfill former Senator Ted Kennedy’s last request to appoint a Senator to vote for health care reform.
Founding “Demand Progress”
The following year, in 2010, Aaron founded the political advocacy group “Demand Progress” in an effort to encourage people online to contact their political leaders, support campaigns to pressure their local governments and share their passion with others by addressing their communities’ issues. “Demand Progress” was well-received by the public and gained many supporters from the start.
As noble as Aaron’s efforts and intentions were, he was not without enemies who wished to promote copyright and keep the information private. Sometime in 2010, as a Research Fellow at Harvard University, Aaron was given access to JSTOR (short for ‘journal storage’), a digital library service. Through JSTOR, Aaron downloaded a large number of academic journal files from the MIT network.
Aaron’s actions were not well-received by the school administration and, on January 6, 2011, he was arrested by MIT police and the Secret Service and charged with breaking-and-entering with intent to commit a felony. Six-and-a-half months later, Aaron was indicted for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Aaron attended many hearings and faced a number of charges.
In spite of the overwhelming odds against him, Aaron continued to fight for the freedom of information. In the midst of being arrested, put on trial and charged over and over again, Aaron continued to promote the concept of freely sharing information for the benefit of all. His passion certainly earned him the support of the masses; in fact, one of his friends said about Aaron in an interview:
“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 Greatest Fight: The Stop Online Piracy Act
One of Aaron’s greatest triumphs was his fight against the controversial “Stop Online Piracy Act” in 2012. The bill, which aimed to address internet copyright violations by granting the government powers to shut down websites and place “intolerable” burdens on internet service providers, was described by Aaron as a totalitarian way of refusing free access of information to the people. He also criticized the fact that those who supported the Stop Online Piracy Act called the sharing of information “stealing.”
Aaron stated in a later interview:
“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). 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.”
It was not an easy fight, but against the perseverance of millions of Americans and Aaron’s involvement with “Demand Progress,” the bill was unsuccessful and the ability to share online information in the United States was preserved. Not long after, Aaron was invited to give a speech at the “F2C: Freedom to Connect” event held in Washington D.C. At the event, Aaron had this to say:
“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.”
Suicide or murder?
Despite his unyielding attitude in the face of government pressure, Aaron was eventually overcome by the attacks against him. In January 2013, his girlfriend found him dead in his apartment, and a medical examiner claimed [based on the autopsy] that Aaron died from hanging. Speculations arose that Aaron committed suicide, although no suicide note was found at the scene.
Aaron’s death shocked the world, but it also influenced people to take action in fighting for their right to free information. In the aftermath of Aaron’s death and funeral, numerous supporters have begun to rise up and call for justice. An example was a statement released by a spokesperson for Anonymous:
“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.”
The Legacy of Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz may be physically gone, but his legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of his family, friends and those who were inspired and encouraged by his life and career. Because of Aaron’s courageous activism, a new spark was lit, giving people the desire and passion to fight for their right to access information freely. Though he may no longer physically participate in the fight, Aaron’s heart and spirit go on through people like you and I who continue his work.
“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... 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’s Work in Online Services
- RSS 1.0 (Web Syndication Specification)
- RDF/XML (Media Type)
- Markdown (Markup Standard)
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Creative Commons
- Demand Progress
- Progressive Change Campaign Committee
- Freedom of the Press Foundation
- Open Access
Awards and Achievements
- 1999: Won the ArsDigita Prize
- 2010: Named a Research Fellow at the Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption of Harvard University
- 2012: Successfully fought against the “Stop Online Piracy Act”
- 2013: Received the “James Madison Award” from the American Library Association and the “EFF Pioneer Award” (both posthumous)
- 2013: Inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame (posthumous)