January 14, 2013

The Martyrdom Of Aaron Swartz

By now, you have no doubt heard of the tragic loss to the technology world this past Friday. Aaron Swartz, aged 26, took his life when he hanged himself in his New York apartment. He was under investigation by the Department of Justice for a matter not many people have fully gotten a handle on because it involves the hacking of an acronym.

JSTOR, an academic journal clearinghouse, actually stands for Journal Storage. Where JSTOR and Swartz apparently intersect is the alleged hacking of JSTOR by Swartz with, what the DOJ investigators claim, was the intention to disseminate the information freely on the internet, thus causing economic harm to JSTOR. Despite Swartz having returned all hacked information to JSTOR, the DOJ continued their investigation with a prosecution set to start in April of this year.

Posted on JSTOR’s website this weekend was a touching sentiment for someone that on Thursday they surely viewed as an existential adversary. On their site they stated:

We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit.

We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011. 

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service and a member of the internet community. We will continue to work to distribute the content under our care as widely as possible while balancing the interests of researchers, students, libraries, and publishers as we pursue our commitment to the long-term preservation of this important scholarly literature.

We join those who are mourning this tragic loss.

But while JSTOR wants to distance themselves from their having been hacked by Swartz, Aaron’s own parents, along with his siblings and partner, had absolutely no qualms about laying the death of their son, brother and significant other squarely at the feet of the DOJ and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). According to their statement, released Saturday, they claim Aaron’s death was, “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Their indictment of MIT was due to that institutions failure to support Swartz in his legal battles and for, as they put it, refusing to stand up for “its own community’s most cherished principles.”

MIT, through President L. Rafael Reif’s office, put out a response on Sunday stating, “I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.”

It seems there is a lot of hand wringing going on about the life and death of this quite obviously brilliant visionary. Swartz’s contribution to modern humanity can’t really be quantified. This amazing person, as an adolescent at only the age of 14, developed the RSS format that each of us today utilize to keep track of activity on blogs and websites without having to re-visit them on a regular basis.

As he grew older and, presumably, wiser, he was a co-founder of the immensely popular website Reddit.com, a site that allows users to communicate, en masse, about topics, websites, articles, etc.

Later still, he was one among the group of internet freedom advocates that began the Demand Progress campaign. Demand Progress was instrumental in striking down the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that threatened broad and excessive censorship opportunities for governments and corporations. Demand Progress was able to coordinate an internet-wide advocacy against SOPA, encouraging users of sites like Wikipedia and Google to contact their legislators and demand that the potential legislation be abandoned at once.

Swartz was a visionary that, like Edward R. Murrow a generation before, speaking on the benefit of television, believed that the internet could teach. It was, via Twitter post, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, one of the British inventors of the World Wide Web, who said, “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

There are few, in all of modern humanity, who have fought on behalf of their fellow man for complete and unfettered access to knowledge that could be delivered by the internet. In his life, he was a tireless advocate for open access for all. And while the details surrounding the incidences leading up to his death will slowly rise to the surface, we can only hope that Swartz will lead us further in death than he might otherwise have been able to in his life.

As this blog was written, a couple of fitting tributes were anonymously offered up on behalf of Aaron Swartz, one can only assume. The websites for both the DOJ and MIT were, to borrow a term Mafioso, disappeared. Their existence on the World Wide Web was, if even temporarily, nonexistent. What’s more is that the Twitterverse is in a frenzy over a new trending hashtag, #pdftribute. Twitter users are encouraging others to find and publish, via pdf file, academic articles like the kind Swartz was to have been prosecuted for having hacked.






Image Credit: Demand Progress

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