A federal case involving an unrelenting prosecutor and a brilliant young prodigy has ended in tragedy. 26 year old Aaron Swartz, the subject of the federal case, has taken his life and a bright star’s light has gone dim in the world. If you’re like me, you may not be familiar with the name right away, but the impact this young man had on the world during his short life merits our pause and reflection. He was humble and shy and the federal case against him has mostly been overshadowed by mass shootings and political malarchy over the past couple of years.
The Making of a Genius
Aaron Swartz was born in Chicago, Illinois in November 1986. His father was a computer programmer and founder of his own computer company. Thus, the early spark of interest for all things computing was born in Aaron. By the time he was 13 years old he was recognized for his technological achievements by winning the ArsDigita Prize which recognized young people for developing “useful, educational, and collaborative” non-commercial Web sites. As a result of that win he was able to visit MIT to meet some dignitaries of the internet. By the time he was 18, he was working on the team that developed RSS 1.o. For those who may not be familiar with that term, RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication and is a standard used by many news organizations and blogs to send news feeds to their readers. He also played a strong role in the founding of Creative Commons which seeks to make creative works accessible to the public.
In more recent days, Swartz championed the cause of free information. It is probably safe to say he is the Robin Hood of information as he pressed for the free flow of information to the public, particularly the academic journals which are housed in large University databases that require fees to access. He co-founded a group called Demand Progress whose efforts are attributed to stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) from passing. Below, you can watch a keynote address Swartz gave at the F2C: Freedom to Connect 2012 event in Washington, D.C.
Swartz unfortunately, found himself on the wrong side of the law back in 2009 when he downloaded a massive amount of documents housed in the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts’ database, PACER. The PACER system houses the electronic documents of the courts and users of the system were charged 8 cents per page to access these documents. This did not set well with Swartz and his colleagues, so using a free trial license that was being offered to University libraries back then, he downloaded nearly 20 million pages before the government shut him out. The FBI investigated the issue but he was never charged.
In 2011, Swartz found himself the subject of a much more serious case as a result of him “fraudulently” downloading 4 million academic journals from the JSTOR database. He apparently gained access to a utility closet at MIT and attached a laptop computer to their network. He used this computer to download millions of academic journals with the intention of making them readily available to the public before MIT police caught him in the act. This made him the target of US Attorney Carmen Ortiz who along with Assistant U.S. Attorneys, Stephen P. Heymann and Scott L. Garland, pursued him fiercely. Many in the academic arena felt the case against Swartz was blown out of proportion and that the laws Ortiz was citing in her case were meant to be used against cyber bank robbers and the like. Swartz didn’t set out to gain anything from his actions but rather, allow free access to University research, much of which is publicly funded. Even JSTOR, the alleged victim in this case, “regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge”. You can read their full statement regarding Aaron Swartz here.