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Democratic Promise: Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013

BY Micah L. Sifry | Saturday, January 12 2013

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia Meetup, August 2009, By Sage Ross.

Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
parents all,
we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.

--Sir Tim Berners Lee, January 11, 2013

Aaron Swartz, a leading activist for open information, internet freedom, and democracy, died at his own hand Friday January 11. He was 26 years old. There is no single comprehensive list of his good works, but here are some of them: At the age of 14 he co-authored the RSS 1.0 spec--taking brilliant advantage of the fact that internet working groups didn't care if someone was 14, they only cared if their code worked. Then he met Larry Lessig and worked closely with him on the early architecting of Creative Commons, an immense gift to all kinds of sharing of culture. He also was the architect and first coder of the Internet Archive's OpenLibrary.org, which now has made more than one million books freely available to anyone with an internet connection. "We couldn't have come this far without his crucial expertise," Open Library says on its about page. He also co-founded Reddit.com, the social news site, and Demand Progress, an online progressive action group that played a vital role in the anti-SOPA/PIPA fight. He also contributed occasionally to Personal Democracy Forum, writing this article on why wikis work and this essay on "parpolity" or the idea that nested councils of elected representatives could be used to represent a whole country, for our 2008 book, Rebooting America. He was a fellow traveler.

Aaron also made gifts of websites the way others might make a friend a plate of brownies. One of his lesser-known legacies, in fact, is a do-it-yourself web platform called Jottit.com, which he built to make it as a simple as possible for anyone to create and publish their own site--or, as he put it, "as easy as filling in a textbox." On it, you can read his explanation on how to become someone like him, a self-made, self-taught disturber of the peace.

We first met in the fall of 2004, when he was 18. I was in San Francisco for a conference and went downtown one evening with my smarter little brother David, who was hosting a Technorati developers hackathon. The idea was to get people working with Technorati's API. At the beginning of the meeting, I spoke up and said that I was looking for someone who could hack together a directory showing which Members of Congress were currently most being mentioned or linked to on blogs. I offered $100 cash to anyone who felt like taking on the challenge. Moments later, there was Aaron, with an impish grin on his face: "I think I can do that." Two hours later, he was done. He was a wizard.

Two years later, we crossed paths in Boston. The Sunlight Foundation, which we had just helped get started earlier that year, was hosting a party for the Wikimania conference, and several of us went out for Indian food together. If memory serves, Aaron was on some crazy diet, limiting his calorie intake to somehow increase his life expectancy. It doesn't matter now. What I do remember more clearly is that it was the start of an attempt at a formal working relationship between Sunlight and Aaron, since his interest in open information as a force for good seemed in close alignment with Sunlight's vision. That relationship led to a six month grant for him to develop Watchdog.net, a noble but incomplete effort at merging campaign finance data with lobbyist information to find the intersections where a lobbyist's intervention appeared to match with an earmark or other special congressional favor.

We never quite saw eye-to-eye about how best to reform or transform politics, and Aaron several times wrote critical blog posts arguing that open data and government transparency weren't enough to make things change for the better. We'd go back and forth by email after each of these posts. He once wrote me:

My core argument is that the problem with our government is not specific misdeeds but systemic corruption. Thus pointing out problems with specific Congresspeople -- whether through wiki pages, pop-up windows, or campaign finance data -- is going to be ineffective, perhaps even counterproductive, because every time you whack at a corruption scandal over here, a dozen more will pop up over there, and interested people will burn out from the impossibility of the task.

The problem is not that Congressman X takes money from the credit card companies and votes for the bankruptcy bill; the problem is that he has to do that to get elected. Forcing him to stop will just force him to be more subtle about it, just as each new campaign finance reform bill sprouts more loopholes. Structural fixes are needed to solve the system problem; fixes like Clean Elections, more independent media, and a more democratic citizenry.

This doesn't mean that forcing him to stop is a bad thing -- if you have to spend resources on individualized projects like this, it's better than not spending them at all. But why constrain yourself in this way? Why not harness the power of the Internet to work on the larger-scale problems?

Think bigger,
- Aaron

This isn't the place to go back over those arguments; they're moot. The point is that that was Aaron--pushing everyone he knew to do more with what they had. I don't know where he got the bug, but I understood it. If you have "change the world" disease, there is only one cure. And he tried mightily to change the world using every tool at his disposal, as Cory Doctorow eloquently wrote on BoingBoing, even if it meant being an outspoken critic of allies and mentors. And that was fine.

An icon smasher, he twice took on the content cartel; first in 2009 by releasing a trove of legal documents from the PACER database of U.S. federal court documents, for which all charges were dropped; and a second time in 2011, when he set up a server in an MIT closet and downloaded about 4 million academic documents from the J-STOR library, for which he was charged with wire fraud and computer fraud and faced a potential sentence of up to 30 years. He was arrested on January 11 6, 2011, exactly just over two years before he took his life.

Aaron at 14, with Larry Lessig. Photo by Rich Gibson.

Lessig, one of his closest friends and mentors, writes on his blog that Aaron was fighting to get the government to drop the felony charges--no doubt because he didn't believe he had caused anyone any harm; besides J-STOR itself had declined to press charges. Lessig:

For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

If coders are the unacknowledged legislators of our new digital age, then Aaron was our Thomas Paine--an alpha geek who didn't use his skills just to get more people to click on ads, but tried to figure out how to change the system at the deepest levels available to him. He accomplished much in his 26 years, but he had so much more promise.

Aaron's parents Robert and Susan Swartz, and partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, have set up this memorial website for him.

This post has been corrected. Swartz was arrested on January 6, 2011 at MIT in connection with his downloading of J-STOR records, not January 11.

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