Power of Anonymity: How Web Activism Cost Aaron Swartz His Life

Back in the 60s, activism was, well, active, and people were willing to stand up for what they believed in.

Young people were disobeying segregation laws, they were risking prison by dodging the draft for the Vietnam War…

Today, however, most of the young’uns are perfectly content with sharing, liking, and tweeting from the comfort of their home.

That doesn’t apply to everyone though. It certainly didn’t apply to Aaron Swartz, a computer prodigy, entrepreneur, and internet activist who fought hard for the freedom of information.
Aaron Swartz wanted to make the world a better place…And he ended up paying dearly for it.

aaron swartz quote

An unconventional path of a child prodigy

It was obvious from the very beginning that Aaron Swartz was extremely bright.

He taught himself to read at age 3. By the time he was in kindergarten he was reading novels, and in elementary school he built and programmed an ATM for a class project. At age 14 he became a member of the group that authored RSS 1.0 web syndication. Then he got his first job when Lawrence Lessig flew him out to San Francisco to write code for Creative Commons.

Despite his brilliance (or, maybe, because of it), Swartz wasn’t cut out for formal education. He had only spent one year in high school, dropping out after 9th grade, and enrolled in courses at a nearby college instead. Later, he got into Stanford, but when his application to Y Combinator was accepted, he decided to drop out of college after the freshman year.

Swartz continued working on the company he co-founded, Infogami. When the company failed to find funding, Y Combinator organizers suggested to merge Infogami and Reddit, and the companies were merged under the Not a Bug umbrella in 2005. Not a Bug was acquired by Conde Nast in 2006 which turned Swartz into a millionaire.
By that time, Swartz had set his eyes on bigger and better things, and got involved into activism.

aaron swartz prodigy

Swartz wanted information to be free. He wanted to see everything available online to everyone. For free. No censorship. And without anything being held back by those in power.

He was outraged by the fact that a lot scientific papers, many of which revolved around research that was funded with tax payers money, were only accessible to those who were able and willing to pay.

In his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, Swartz wrote:

“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. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier. (…) That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable”

But little did he know that his fight against this obscene profiteering meant he had to give up his life.

“…charged on 13 counts, including theft of information, facing up to 35 years in prison”

Swartz used an MIT wireless network to get access to JSTOR database. He didn’t even need to hack anything – anyone on the campus, even those who were not students, could access it. Then, he started downloading papers from the database in enormous quantities using a script he wrote, something that was against JSTOR terms of use. It was unclear whether Swartz intended to use the data for his own research or share it on the Internet… But MIT soon tracked this activity to the computer Swartz had hidden in a closet, and they placed a hidden surveillance camera in the location.

On July 11, 2011, when Swartz came to take his laptop, police arrested him. He was charged on 13 counts, including theft of information, and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.Interestingly, JSTOR settled and considered the matter resolved, but that didn’t get him out of trouble. MIT cooperated with the prosecution, and, according to the prosecution, theft was theft.

Shortly after his arrest prosecutors subpoenaed his then-girlfriend, Quinn Norton. Swartz and Norton were both worried about her going to jail, because they knew that if prosecutors asked to see her laptop, she’d have to refuse (she wrote about hackers, had contacts and sources in that world, and her laptop contained tons of confidential information). Eventually, Quinn got her own attorney and cooperated with prosecution, which is understandable given that she had a seven year old daughter to think about.

On September 12, 2012, prosecutors added nine more felony counts to the Swartz’s charges, and increased his maximum criminal exposure to 50 years in prison and $1,000,000 in fines.

Swartz’s money ran out because of the legal fees, he was facing an uncertain future with a threat of decades of imprisonment looming over it, and his political dreams were shattered.

On January 11, 2013, two days after the prosecution rejected his counter-offer, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment, where he had hanged himself.

aaron swartz death

“Aaron was killed by the government” says his father, Robert Swartz

It’s unclear whether he had killed himself because of the trial, but his friends and family note that Swartz has been under extreme stress because of it, and his father blames US prosecutors for his death.

“Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government” said Robert Swartz during a service at the Central Avenue Synagogue. “Someone who made the world a better place was pushed to his death by the government”.

And it’s hard to see it any other way. Was downloading a bunch of academic papers really a crime that called for up to 50 years in prison and up to $1,000,000 in fines? It’s easy to see how this could push anyone over the edge…

And now, the prosecutors get to continue enjoying their lives, JSTOR gets to continue hoarding human knowledge, and MIT officials involved in the case get to keep their prestigious jobs. Meanwhile, Aaron Swartz doesn’t get to do anything anymore. Because he’s dead.

What could have he achieved if he hadn’t taken his own life? We’ll never know. But we can be pretty sure that the world would have been a better place because of it.

We are in the game of exposing the hidden truth. Why forsake your own security when your voice can be heard behind the curtain of anonymity?

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