This is the story of someone who publicly released government documents and was ruthlessly pursued by the U.S. government for his actions, but this is not the story of Edward Snowden. This is not the story of Bradley Manning either. This is the story of Aaron Swartz, and it doesn’t have a happy ending.
Aaron Swartz was a computer science prodigy from Chicago. At the age of 14 he helped write the RSS standard that facilitates distribution of online content. (All of you who loved your Google Reader had Aaron Swartz to thank.) He was 19 when a company he founded merged with the fledgling company Reddit, making Swartz a partner and key contributor to Reddit’s later success.
Aaron Swartz co-founded Demand Progress, an activist group to prevent Internet censorship. Swartz was a leader in the fight against the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) that would have given the government broad powers to shut down any website suspected of sharing unlicensed copyrighted content.
In 2008, Aaron Swartz downloaded and openly posted federal court documents from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. These were public records without copyright yet the government was charging a fee to access them. When PACER granted free access to libraries for a trial period Swartz wrote a script to download millions of PACER documents that he released for sharing online. The FBI investigated Swartz’s actions but dismissed the charges.
Then Aaron Swartz really got into trouble.
In a similar manner to how he collected PACER documents, Aaron Swartz used his authorized access (as a Harvard fellow) to bulk download documents from MIT’s JSTOR repository of academic papers. The assumed reason was that he would share them publicly, but he never got the chance. He was visited by the MIT police and the U.S. Secret Service and was charged a serious list of offenses that over the course of two years and multiple indictments would grow to include 13 felonies. The final list of charges threatened Swartz with half a century in prison and $1 million dollars in fines, but the trial of “United States v. Aaron Swartz” never happened.
On January 11, 2013 Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment. The government’s attempts to make an example of him had gone too far.
Aaron Swartz had hung himself.
Aaron Swartz was 26 years old.
Aaron Swartz was eulogized in a post by his friend and mentor Lawrence Lessig ending with these words:
Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.
Aaron Swartz is dead. He was a brilliant young man and passionate activist. He fought “dumb copyright” and government censorship.
Forget Edward Snowden. Aaron Swartz is your true Internet hero. Remember him.
RELATED POST: Why I chose not to work for the NSA
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