Aaron Swartz - The Internet's Own Boy
May 17, 2018•2,289 words
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. [...]
Those with access to these resources - students, librarians, scientists - you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not - indeed, morally, you cannot - keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. [...]
There is no justice in following unjust laws. 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. [...]
With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?
These word aren't ours. They come from the Open Access Manifesto published in 2008 by Aaron Swartz.
There are many ways to define who Aaron Swartz was. One could say that he was a developper, an entrepreneur, a writer, a political organizer, an internet hacktivist... But above all, he was an idealist person.
He thought he could change the world just by explaining the world very clearly to people.
During his life, he stood up for causes that he thought would help people understand the world better.
At the age of 12, he worked on creating a free collective online encyclopedia called "TheInfoNetwork" (sounds like Wkikpedia, doesn't it? Except that TheInfoNetwork was older). He'd just turned 14 when he became part of the comitee that drafted the RSS format. In 2005 he joined the founders of Reddit.
From 2008, he started fighting against the US government for blocking access to public court records and selling them through the PACER platform.
Accurately summarize everything he has accomplished in his short life is nearly impossible. We will therefore try to give you a glimpse of Aaron through the causes that were the most important to him.
TheInfoNetwork, RSS, Markdown...
From his childhood, he quickly showed himself very curious and self-taught to some extent. When his father first showed him a computer, he immediately became attracted to it. He started learning programming and developping projects with his brother first, then by himself.
For example, with his brother, they created a Q&A trivia game about the Star Wars universe in BASIC.
He sincerely believed that collaboration and knowledge sharing were crucial to innovation. That's why in 2000, at age 12, he created a website called "TheInfoNetwork" : a web encyclopedia where everyone could write their own articles on any topic and edit the other ones, one year before the creation of Wikipedia.
For this achievement, he won an ArsDigita Prize, given to young people who create "useful, educational, and collaborative" noncommercial websites. Through this event, he became involved in online programming communities. It was at this time that he joined the community that defined the RSS standard, a revolutionary technology that made it possible to simply follow regular updates of websites. Still used nowadays.
Amongst his achievements, he participated in creating Markdown, a ligthweight markup language and he was a fouding member of Reddit, a very famous discussion website that is very popular for sharing opinions on news events.
PACER and political commitment
From 2005, he began to develop a more political vision of the internet, and he started to work on projects with the aim of ensuring freedom of access to information on the internet.
Aaron realized that the U.S federal court documents such as case information, normally freely accessible to all, were actually only available on the internet via the PACER platform, an official website where articles were sold for $0.08 per page.
This was against his profound beliefs. How could one imagine that such documents were locked up, preventing students, researchers, everyone from freely reading them? Those documents belonged to the American people, and they had to pay to read them.
He got in touch with Carl Malamud, the founder of Public.Resource.org, with whom he shared the same positions on free access to American court records. Carl Malamud had created a website where everyone could upload the PACER records they bought to make them available to everyone for free.
Swartz then found out that some library had a free access to PACER database, so he created a script that massively downloaded PACER records using those libraries' credentials and uploaded them to public.resource.org.
They managed to download 2.7 million documents, which represented about $1.6 million in lost revenue for the Administrative Office that ran PACER, so they hired the FBI to investigate the case. Since the documents were in the public domain, the FBI found nothing wrong, nevertheless they decided to keep an eye on him.
This was the beginning of Aaron's battle for public acces to information.
In 2010, Swartz co-founded "Demand Progress" a political support group which organized people online to take action by contacting Congress representatives about civil liberties, government reforms and other important issues.
Swartz was involved in the campaign to prevent passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act.
What SOPA could do was it could allow companies to cut off finances to entire websites or force Google to exclude their links. All they needed to do that was a claim of copyright infringement. Just a claim, not a proof. So everyone who owned a website would be responsible of the content posted by any user, and the site could be shut down very easily without even a trial.
At first Aaron thought he could never stop the bill from passing. His goal was to slow it down and maybe soften it. Indeed, the law was already close to passing without even being discussed in Congress.
It was a very hard fight, a kind of "David versus Goliath" struggle. On the one hand there were all the corporations that were for the bill and on the other hand there were few internet companies and millions of people.
Even the White House and Barack Obama were against this law, but money can be very powerful.
To prevent the law from passing, Aaron Swartz and Demand Progress created anti-SOPA petitions and asked people to call congressmen and their representatives to let them know they were against the bill.
Do you remember what happened on Jan. 18th 2012?
That particular day, more that 115,000 websites blacked-out or displayed a message in their front page to alert the people about the dangers of SOPA towards the freedom of information.
For example, Wikipedia went black, they displayed a message on their landiing page asking people to contact their representatives about the bill.
Websites that participated in this online demonstration included large sites like Google, Craigslist (kind of U.S version of leboncoin), Tumblr, Twitter, Wordpress, Reddit, Wired magazine's website, 4chan and many more.
During that day the Capitol's phone lines exploded. They got millions of calls. They recieved more phone calls and email on the blackout day than they ever did.
The impact of this action was so significant that congressmen began to reduce the bill with hope that it would stop the protesters. It didn't.
After that day, six of PIPA's sponsors in the Senate declared that they would withdarw their support to the bill. By the following days, many Senators and Congressmen had announced that they no longer supported PIPA.
Eventually, after long months of tough struggle, the people won the battle and managed to cancel the enactment of the bill.
The fight against JSTOR
Do you know where scientific articles and publications are stored on the Internet?
So, a researcher paid by the university, therefore by the people, writes a paper, a thesis report, an analysis or a study for example. Once he has finished his work, in order to be published, he must transfer his copyright on his work to a publisher. The publisher then owns the work and can do whatever they want. And what they do is gathering all the articles on their website and sell to universities very expensive licenses to consult the articles.
They sell licenses to allow scientists to read their co-worker's researches. What a racket!
Imagine : Gaël writes an article. He wants to publish it, so he hands over his copyright to an editor. The editor now owns the article and publishes it on their platform, which means that I couldn't be able to read it for free, iven though he's my colleague, and it would be illegal for him to give me a copy of his work.
JSTOR is one of them. And it's the one Aaron Swartz decided to take action against. He had gone to some conferences about Open Access and Open Publishing, and he asked a JSTOR representative "How much would it cost to open up JSTOR in perpetuity?". And the man gave a price estimate that was ridiculously high, something like 200 million dollars. Studying at Harvard, Swartz knew that the MIT's network had free and fast access to JSTOR.
He saw an opportunity.
You have access to more scientific literature than you'll ever need, at your fingertips, for free. What do you do? Do you keep it for yourself, or do you find a way to open it to everyone?
For Swartz, the decision was obvious.
On Sept. 24th 2010, Aaron Swartz registered a newly purchased laptop on the MIT network under the name of "Garry Host".
He then wrote a simple script called "keepgrabbing.py" which basically downloaded articles one after another.
The next day, the compute'rs IP address was blocked, so he changed it and kept downloading. JSTOR and the MIT noticed that something was happening, so the editor decided to block the whole MIT's IP address range.
Eventually, Swartz found an open server room in the basement of the MIT where the computers still had access to JSTOR's database. He plugged in his computer and started downloading again.
The authorities found his material, and instead of removing it, they decided to put a surveillance camera.
When Swartz came back a few weeks later to replace the external hard drive, the police identified him and violently arrested him on his way home, and charged with two counts of breaking and entering, then he got released on bail. In the meantime, JSTOR, the main victim decided not to sue him.
So why was he still charged?
To give things some context, it is important to know that at the beginning of 2010, hacktivists were numerous. Chelsea Manning had just been arrested and convicted of treason, WikiLeaks was disclosing many top secret documents and Anonymous were very active on the Internet.
So the government found in Aaron a way to stop all this by making an example out of him.
He got indicted on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfuly obtaining information from a protected computer and damaging a protected computer.
Eleven out of the 13 charges involved the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was a 1986 bill which was passed at a time where a movie about a young hacker frightened the congress enough to vote it. The law waw so vague that it made nearly any computer user a possible felon.
On Sept. 12th 2012, federal prosecutor added 9 more felony counts, increasing Swartz's maximum criminal exposure to 50 years of imprisonment and $1 million in fines.
He was offered a deal : 6 months in a low-security prison and prohibition to use a computer for one year if he'd pled guilty to the 13 crimes. Swartz and his attorney rejected the deal.
With all that was happening, Swartz was under tremendous presure. He was pursued by the Governent who wouldn't stop at anything to bring him down. All the money he had gathered thanks to his projects had gone in attorney and court fees.
On Jan. 11th 2013 Aaron was found dead by hanging at his appartment. No suicide note was found. Swartz's family and friends created a memorial website on which they issued a statement, saying :
He used his prodigious programming skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place.
Days before Swartz's funerals, Lawrence Lessig, an attorny, political activist and friend of Aaron declared that Swartz's prosecutions were disproportionate. He said : "The question the government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labelled a 'felon'?"
Aaron's death have left a huge void among the hacktivist community around the world. Since it was not simply the death of an individual but the result of the American government's determination to make an example out of him.
Aaron Swart'z father said about his son :
If you look at Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, they started by selling a Blue Box, which was a thing designed to defraud the phone company.
If you look at Bill Gates and Paul Allen, they initially started their business by using computer time at Harvard, which was pretty clearly against the rules.
The difference between Aaron and the people I just mentionned is that Aaron wanted to make the world a better place, he didn't just want to make money.
Aaron Swartz had made such incredible achievements in the beginning of his life that the real pain of the Internet community is not knowing what he might have accomplished in the future.