By Stephan Manning.

Aaron died on January 11 2013. He was 26 years old. In his short life, Aaron made more impact in this world than I will probably ever make. And – I should add – his influence would have grown so much larger if he had decided to live.

Aaron once described himself as someone who is driven entirely by curiosity. And this might have been true when he joined a working group at the age of 14 to co-author the RSS 1.0 standard – a web feed format for frequently updated works, such as blogs and news headlines. After dropping out of college he founded Infogami which later merged with Reddit – a news spreading website which today attracts Millions of users every month. But this – although impressive by itself – is not why I am writing this blog. Aaron was more than a gifted programmer and web enthusiast.

From early on, Aaron stood for a new spirit in the Internet age. He fought for the right to connect and freely share information. And he did this in ways that were novel, effective and sometimes drastic. Most famous perhaps is Aaron’s leadership role in the campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which would have allowed the U.S. government to shut down websites accused of violating copyright, and, in effect, censor Internet content. You might remember the ‘Internet strike’ on January 18 2012: Wikipedia shut down and Google went black – probably the largest coordinated online protest ever. And as Aaron describes it, this movement was neither backed by political groups, non-governmental organizations, nor the corporate world. There was no lobby for it. Even mass media remained silent – maybe because of their vested interest in controlling the spread of news and information through the Internet. It was entirely up to citizens and Internet users to recognize the importance of this bill and to raise their voices. And it took leaders like Aaron to make that happen. For more details you may find this video very insightful:

It might take years before people realize how important this collective action was. It could very well be that the freedom to connect and share information will become a human right much like the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. What happened in 2012 was maybe ahead of time, and, yet, it may lay the groundwork for a fundamental shift in thinking about the social value of information.

And let’s not forget about Aaron’s activism in related domains. Aaron strongly believed that access to public sources of knowledge and information should be free. In 2008, he downloaded and released approximately 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database of United States federal court documents. PACER was charging 8 cents per page for information – much more than necessary to keep the system running, and a financial burden for many who might be interested in accessing these documents. In a similar fashion, Aaron used his access to MIT’s ‘open campus’ to download a large amount of articles from JSTOR – a digital repository of academic articles – for free dissemination. Aaron was arrested, facing a long sentence in prison, mainly because MIT held on to charges of wire fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer etc. This affair might have very well contributed to Aaron’s early death.

What Aaron did might appear to some as an act of stealing, but let’s take a broader perspective. The law does not distinguish between crimes that are committed for personal benefit from illegal actions for the greater good. Nor has the law any foresight. Not so long ago it was illegal for women to vote, illegal for homosexual couples to get married, illegal to abort. And it used to be legal to physically punish school kids as a teacher, legal to restrict access to public places for physically handicapped people, legal to pollute the air without limitation. As it is legal today to make information of public value proprietary, and illegal to freely disseminate that information.

In a few years time, people may take for granted that information of public interest is freely accessible and they might have a hard time understanding why Aaron’s progressive act met so much resistance. But let’s be honest: progress is barely possible without a few brave characters who step over the line. As the German songwriter Wolf Biermann once put it in his ‘Ballade for a truly deeply concerned friend’: “My Dear, this has to do with division of labor. There are those who remain silent, and there are those who shout. If people like you go way too short, then some others may go a little too far.” Aaron went pretty far, and paid for it.

I would like to end with the first verse of another song – by Pete Seeger, a political songwriter Aaron admired very much. This song is called “If you miss me at the back of the bus” and it deals with the struggle of African Americans to fight for legal rights which everybody takes for granted today. It goes like this:

“If you miss me at the end of the bus
you can’t find me nowhere
come on over to the front of the bus
I’ll be riding up there.”

Aaron never accepted the growing rule of capital and government control over the Internet. He was riding up there. Thanks Aaron. And this will definitely not be the final word….


Further Links:

Farhad Manjoo: How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz (January 2013)

Michael Eisen: How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz (January 2013)