The legacy of Aaron Swartz: The computer programmer who became a martyr of the Freedom of Information movement

A decade after one of Reddit’s co-founders committed suicide, a new generation of hacktivists are continuing his efforts to decentralize digital information

Aaron Swartz in an image taken a few months before he committed suicide.
Aaron Swartz in an image taken a few months before he committed suicide.

A decade after his suicide, Aaron Swartz – an American computer programmer and political organizer – continues to inspire new generations of hacktivists.

Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013. An icon of hacker culture, he was only 26 years old.

One of the founders of Reddit, Swartz invented part of the internet’s infrastructure. However, despite his entrepreneurship, he vigorously fought against the privatization of knowledge – a process that he feared was taking place in the digital sphere.

At age 14, the prodigy helped develop a key technology for online content subscriptions. By 19, he dropped out of Stanford University and became a millionaire after selling Reddit – the news aggregator he helped build – to the magazine publisher Condé Nast.

After his financial success, he turned to activism. His non-profit organization, Creative Commons, was founded to promote collective intellectual property. Swartz was also one of the creators of the Open Library project, which set out to build a database of books.

Swartz also took bolder actions that landed him in legal trouble. In 2013, he was facing 35 years in prison for infringing copyright laws – he was accused of downloading and disseminating 4.8 million scientific articles from the JSTOR repository. Access to each article costs up to $40.

After declining a plea bargain and engaging in further negotiations with the prosecution, Swartz – who had a depressive personality – committed suicide.

His family, several public figures and his numerous followers saw the case as a form of persecution against the young programmer.

“The government seems to have lost all sense of proportion in this case,” complained Tim Berners-Lee, one of the internet’s founders.

Alex Stamos, the former head of cybersecurity at Facebook, denied that Swartz’s action caused a “real danger” to JSTOR, the website from which the activist downloaded millions of articles. As a researcher at Harvard University, Swartz had managed to gain full access to the site.

After Swartz’s death, the hacktivist group Anonymous unleashed a cyberattack on the US Justice Department’s website, putting it out of service for several hours. One of the messages posted read: “Aaron, this is for you.”

“Swartz is considered a martyr for the cause, even by people who, like me, don’t believe in martyrs,” explains Simona Levi, the director of Xnet, an activist organization devoted to the defense of digital rights. “He was a pioneer in revealing… the siege of knowledge that licenses and scientific publications have established. His sacrifice has served to raise awareness around this issue. Since [his death], there have been many people who have been working on how to break the monopoly of scientific publications.”

The young programmer’s record was extensive. In 2008, he hacked into a public access portal to US judicial files that charged 10 cents per consultation. This put authorities on Swartz’s trail. When he was arrested years later, a Secret Service agent participated in his arrest.

A 'Time' cover dedicated to Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning).
A 'Time' cover dedicated to Edward Snowden, Aaron Swartz and Chelsea Manning (then known as Bradley Manning).

Near the end of his life, Swartz acquired the complete database of the US Library of Congress – which, at the time, kept a copy of the entire internet – and dumped it into the Open Library online project. It is said – though it has never been proven – that he also collaborated with Julian Assange at WikiLeaks, developing the technical infrastructure that made secure document leaks possible.

Swartz’s ideas were included in the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, a reference manual for the hacker movement. An excerpt from the text reads as follows: “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.” It continues: “It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.”

Swartz didn’t fit the stereotype of the timid hacker with no social skills. He was a computer genius, but he also had charisma. He knew how to speak in public and demonstrated leadership skills by spearheading various social initiatives.

The hacktivist was even considering making the leap into politics, after the Occupy movement managed to mobilize thousands of demonstrators against Wall Street by using the power of the internet. Perhaps for this reason – to slow down his progress, some say – powerful groups decided to make an example out of him.

“For me, Aaron Swartz is an icon. He embraced the hacker culture, using technology as an element of people’s liberation, to make knowledge available to others,” says Spanish engineer Jaime Gómez-Obregón, who has developed various digital tools to promote transparency in public sector contracting.

The Swartz legacy lives on. His spiritual heir is Alexandra Elbakyan, known as the “Robin Hood of science.” This 34-year-old Kazakh engineer and neuroscientist – based in Russia – is in charge of Sci-Hub, an open repository of scientific articles that has released more than 80 million documents.

The US Department of Justice has been after the Kazakh woman since she launched the website in 2011. American officials have even investigated her possible links to the Kremlin. As with Edward Snowden, the Russian government offers Elbakyan protection.

“The fact that knowledge can only be accessible to people with money is an impediment to the advancement of science and research. Elbakyan is fighting against it, just like Swartz did,” Simona Levi emphasizes.

The Spanish founder of Xnet feels that, over the last decade, much progress has been made in securing the demands of those who defend open scientific information: “The high price of scientific publications in universities is a scandal.”

The original promise of the internet – which aimed to be a great public space where everything could be shared – has since been buried under the weight of commercial interests.

“Maybe the only space for real freedom on the internet is the dark web. The rest has been captured by certain oligopolies and centralized data systems. This means that people don’t have control or power over what they do in the digital field,” says Albert Cañigueral, a member of the Ouishare online collaboration network.

Cañigueral believes that there’s been some movement in activist and academic environments, but not in the corporate world. “The big challenge is how to establish that bridge.”

“The free software movement and projects like Wikipedia – which seek to disseminate knowledge in an open manner – coexist with the power of big tech, which is trying to turn the internet into what television has already become: a dump, a kind of instrument controlled by a few at the service of their own interests,” Gómez-Obregón affirms.

“The tension between these two visions of the internet exists. And the battle continues. In these struggles, martyrs are needed, faces that are sometimes idealized, but that allow the struggle to become visible. Swartz’s death should never have happened, but his passing raised awareness for a lot of people.”

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