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Amy Goodman
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Friday 18 January 2013
Aaron, in his early teens, wrote on his blog, “I’m not going to waste my time on things that won’t have an impact ... I want to make the world a better place.”

Aaron Swartz and the Freedom to Connect

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Aaron Swartz wanted nothing more than to change the world. He was doing just that until he ended his own life, at the age of 26, on Jan. 11. Aaron was a social justice activist, gifted with deep understanding of how computers and the Internet work, and how they could empower people around the world with the freedom to connect. Self-effacing and insatiably curious, he accomplished much in his too-short life. He took a lead role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a federal law that would have indelibly changed the operation of the Internet, granting corporations sweeping online censorship powers. Aaron became the target of zealous federal prosecutors who accused him of serious computer crimes, which his father, his lawyer and others say contributed to his suicide.

At the age of 14, Aaron helped develop "Really Simple Syndication” (RSS), which changed how people get online content, allowing people to subscribe to different sources of information. RSS is how millions get their podcasts. He also helped develop the “Creative Commons” alternative to copyright, which encourages authors and publishers to share content. He founded a company, Infogami, that merged with Reddit, which allows users to collectively rank and promote contributed content, and is now one of the most popular websites globally. He attended Stanford, then, by 2010, became a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

While at Harvard, his legal troubles began. He used the Internet at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to access a repository of digitized academic articles run by a nonprofit company called JSTOR, which apparently noticed a massive amount of downloads from a single user and contacted MIT to investigate.

Ultimately, Aaron was arrested outside MIT, with a laptop and some hard drives that purportedly contained about 4 million electronic articles. JSTOR declined to press charges and Aaron returned all the articles. That didn’t matter to Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney in Boston who was appointed in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Along with Deputy U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Heymann, these two prosecutors piled 13 federal felony charges onto Aaron under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a problematic and overly broad law intended to target people stealing secrets from government computers or from financial institutions.

Aaron’s family released a statement, saying: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Aaron’s girlfriend, told me about Aaron’s activism: “He would say, ‘I don’t want to be happy, I just want to change the world.’ Open access to information was one of the causes he believed in, but it was far from the only one. During the course of this two-year ordeal, he led the fight against SOPA, the Internet censorship bill, which no one thought could be defeated when it was first introduced. ... He did that all while under the burden of these bullying and false charges.”

Aaron co-founded Demand Progress, with a mission “to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying.” The group is calling for changes to the CFAA, including support for a bill just introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., called “Aaron’s Law.” Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal wrote: “As currently written, Aaron’s Law alone wouldn’t have saved Aaron—there is still more to do to make sure that victimless computer activities are not charged as felonies—but this is a solid start that we can pass now and it’s a law he wanted to change. And then we’ll keep pushing.”

At Aaron’s funeral, giants of the Internet eulogized the young man, among them Harvard Law School’s Larry Lessig, who called him “an incredible soul,” and Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who responded initially to the sad news with a tweet: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

Aaron, in his early teens, wrote on his blog, “I’m not going to waste my time on things that won’t have an impact ... I want to make the world a better place.” And he did.

© 2011 Amy Goodman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate



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ABOUT Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 900 stations in North America. She is the author of "Breaking the Sound Barrier," recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

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8 comments on "Aaron Swartz and the Freedom to Connect"

CorPARAnoid

January 18, 2013 6:20pm

I cant help but think the american NAZI's, CIA, Corp felons are in cohoots to destroy our great land, our liberty, our ability to work at a decent job with a living wage.
God Bless you Aaron, work on the OTHER SIDE now to help Protect US.

dorothyknable

January 18, 2013 4:12pm

I don't know anything more than the general public does about Aaron's death, but I do not encourage the anger engendered by suspecting foul play. Looking into it properly, yes. But, when we greave, our emotions are heightened and it is very hard to keep reason foremost. That is the burden of thinkers who want a better world, though.

We from the '60's have been here; vulnerability is painful but it is real. We who stand up in public discourse face danger to at least our reputations -- It is up to citizens who care about society to maintain objectivity and civility, not just when it is easy, and especially when we're in pain.

Hypatia

January 18, 2013 3:05pm

Thank goodness someone finally said what is so patently obvious -- he was assassinated. All this drivel about depression and suicide is immediately hyped when someone who blows any kind of whistle is found dead. He was killed plain and simple. Such a tragedy for us all.

dorothyknable

January 18, 2013 2:08pm

I'm going to the SF memorial. Sacramentans into the CA Disclose Act (now SB 52) and Dickinson's AB45, as well as net neutrality and Aaron Swartz, may ride with me or go public trans. together, arranged through my email. dorothyknable@comcast.net

As in the 60's, we are again losing so many of our great young leaders, we need to discuss mutual support in our movements and to make sure none of these deaths are actually suspicious -- Have there been even half as many right-wing private plane crashes, victims of "lone 'nuts' (mentally ill) or sudden suicides?

danh

January 18, 2013 2:24pm

Thanks Dorothy.

One route in by public transportation would be to take BART to the Montgomery station in San Francisco, then walk to Montgomery and Market (less than 10 minutes), then take the 38 to Park Presidio and Geary. And the bus stops about 1 or two blocks from the Archive.

This is open to the public, but parking might be a challenge.

(And you are right about our leaders and potential leaders being cut down in the 60s, imho.)

bcbossarte's picture
bcbossarte

January 18, 2013 1:49pm

Never will I believe he did this to himself. The CIA uses hanging to often to easily get rid of someone. It is a nice tidy package that always sells easily as 'depression' is pushed hard in the media. Especially since JOTA dropped charges several days earlier Arron was rejoicing. This must have really pissed ' them ' off...
30,000 drones are set to be released in America by 2014. Do the math, 30,000 divided by 51 states....you won't be able to sunbath in your own backyard without it being recorded....all in the name of keeping us safe....

Kootenay Coyote

January 18, 2013 10:43am

Martyr.

danh

January 18, 2013 10:41am

There will be a memorial for Aaron, for those in the San Francisco Bay Area, Thursday, January 24, 2013, at the Internet Archive, 300 Funston (about a block from Park Presidio, between Geary and Clement).

Reception at 7:00 p.m., memorial at 8:00 p.m.

http://blog.archive.org/2013/01/15/memorial-for-aaron-swartz/