A hacktivist, a political activist, a whiz-kid, a genius, a legend; there are many titles people still use to remember Aaron Swartz, even though the authorities tried hard to destroy him. They might have succeeded in breaking him, but they failed to bury his legacy. The 26-year-old prodigy allegedly hanged himself on January 12 2013, in his apartment, but there was no evidence suggesting it was a suicide. According to reports, his girlfriend found him hanging from a ceiling with a belt but found no suicide note. The media took the easy way out and blamed it on “depression”, just like most mysterious suicide cases. A determined activist ending his life without penning a reason raised many unanswered questions about his life and death.
As it’s known, Swartz was a strong advocate of open internet and fought for the removal of barriers that allowed the free flow of information. Of course, many entities had problems with this progression as it was not friendly for those who took the information as a business. Swartz’s death led to an outburst of rage and anguish in the online community. To many, he was a hero who used his technical skills to make things easy for everyone rather than becoming one of the Silicon Valley giants.
On his 9th death anniversary today, let’s take a quick look back at his contribution to the free and open internet. Possibly, the reasons for his alleged suicide may become clear this way.
The Productive Life of Aaron Swartz
Aaron Hillel Swartz, born on November 8, 1986, developed a keen interest in decoding how the world worked from a very young age. He liberated heaps of restricted data, created a free public library at Archive.org, and took countless other actions in hopes to reform the sorry political system of this world.
He was one of the early pioneers of Creative Commons, a non-profit international network dedicated to providing educational access and expanding the availability of creative content for others to use and share legally and freely. Aaron Swartz dropped out of high school at the age of 14 and helped to develop RSS (really simple syndication), a web feed format that allowed users to keep track of several websites in a single news collector, which constantly monitored sites for updated content like headlines, blogs, audios, and videos.
In 2004, he co-created Markdown (a lightweight markup language) for creating stylized text using a simple text editor that allowed humans to read the computer language in its source code form. By the time he was 19, he co-programmed Reddit, a social news and entertainment website, later sold to Condé Nast in 2006 for reportedly between 10 million USD to 20 million USD. Two years later, he co-authored the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which called for the liberation of the information restricted by for-profit publishing corporations. At 23, he co-founded an online advocacy group called Demand Progress. It successfully campaigned against the government control over the internet and supported internet freedom, human rights, transparency, and civil liberties.
Swartz was a Harvard research fellow by the age of 24 and conducted studies on corruption. The world’s reality hit him hard, thinking how rich people could easily pay for the content, but the researchers in poorer countries were locked out.
He was depressed by the sheer imbalance of power structures in a world that pretended to be democratic. He realized how big money could influence and corrupt anything, including the institutions. He fiercely led a free and open access movement, leading him to take one action that hit the system where it hurt the most.
It started around 2010 when a few scholars and activists argued about open access for scholarly articles. They specifically mentioned JSTOR as an example of a grand database that included useful educational material, which was off-limits for the general public. It contains studies related to history, philosophy, anthropology, geography, evidence-based sociology, theology, oriental studies, classical studies, musicology, and anything one could name. However, they are all locked behind a payment portal except for some particle physics and string theory scholarships, which only a few trained professionals have the cognitive capacity to understand.
Aaron Swartz also joined forces with the activists to make JSTOR available to the general public, but they met a dead end every time. They learned that obtaining the copyright for the complete archive would require hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s when Swartz took matters into his own hands and began the liberation of education. He purchased a new laptop, hardwired it into the MIT network using a guest account, and downloaded millions of academic articles.
His intentions about the articles remained unknown. It is unclear if he wanted to make them available to the general public or demonstrate that it was possible to do this. Before he could do anything, the US authorities responded with full force.
Authorities Hell Bent on Prosecution
The overzealous response from the US attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann shocked many. In 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested on 13 felony counts, including “wire fraud, computer hacking, and recklessly damaging a protected computer”. It was indeed the time when the capitalist world of the US was struggling to cope with the threats of online hackers, who could infiltrate government records and shut down entire systems with a keyboard and a mouse. Although Swartz had no victims, did not act for personal gain, and even JSTOR stopped pursuing charges when he returned the articles, the US authorities did not stop. Ortiz said that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer or a crowbar” and relentlessly pursued to send him to prison. 3 months before the start of the trial, Ortiz’s office also declined a deal that could have kept Swartz out of jail. Then 2 days later, he ended up dead, which appeared like a suicide.
Nobody could make sense of his suicide, so most went with depression theory. It was evident that he suffered from depression after witnessing the corruption in the online world and a passionate trail that made him look like some monster. Even if it was depression that took his life, then it is clear who the actual monster was all along, the same system that he wanted to change for the better.