Yesterday Aaron Swartz, a close friend and collaborator of ours, committed suicide. This is a tragic end to a brief and extraordinary life.
Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way. His contributions were numerous, and some of them were indispensable. When we asked him in late 2010 for help in stopping COICA, the predecessor to the SOPA and PIPA Internet blacklist bills, he founded an organization called Demand Progress, which mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign.
Other projects Aaron worked on included the RSS specifications, web.py, tor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron helped launch the Creative Commons. He was a former co-founder at Reddit, and a member of the team that made the site successful. His blog was often a delight.
Aaron’s eloquent brilliance was mixed with a complicated introversion. He communicated on his own schedule and needed a lot of space to himself, which frustrated some of his collaborators. He was fascinated by the social world around him, but often found it torturous to deal with.
For a long time, Aaron was more comfortable reading books than talking to humans (he once told me something like, “even talking to very smart people is hard, but if I just sit down and read their books, I get their most considered and insightful thoughts condensed in a beautiful and efficient form. I can learn from books faster than I can from talking to the authors.”). His passion for the written word, for open knowledge, and his flair for self-promotion, sometimes produced spectacular results, even before the events that proved to be his undoing.
In 2011, Aaron used the MIT campus network to download millions of journal articles from the JSTOR database, allegedly changing his laptop’s IP and MAC addresses when necessary to get around blocks put in place by JSTOR and MIT and sneaking into a closet to get a faster connection to the MIT network. For this purported crime, Aaron was facing criminal charges with penalties up to thirty-five years in prison, most seriously for “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.
Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.
Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.
Introduction by Lawrence Lessig
Introduction by Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen
Counterpoint: Downloading Isn’t Stealing
UTI Interview with Aaron Swartz
Jefferson: Nature Wants to Be Free
Guerilla Open Access Manifesto
The Fruits of Mass Collaboration
The Techniques of Mass Collaboration: A Third Way Out
Wikimedia at the Crossroads
Who Writes Wikipedia?
Who Runs Wikipedia?
Making More Wikipedians
Making More Wikipedias
Code, and Other Laws of Wikipedia
(The Dandy Warhols) Come Down
Up with Facts: Finding the Truth in WikiCourt
A Database of Folly
When is Transparency Useful?
How We Stopped SOPA
Introduction by David Auerbach
Excerpt: A Programmable Web
Privacy, Accuracy, Security: Pick Two
Fixing Compulsory Licensing
Postel’s Law Has No Exceptions
Squaring the Triangle: Secure, Decentralized, Human-Readable Names
Release Late, Release Rarely
Bake, Don’t Fry
Building Baked Sites
A Brief History of Ajax
A Non-Programmer’s Apology
Introduction by David Segal
How Congress Works
Keynes, Explained Briefly
Toward a Larger Left
Professional Politicians Beware!
The Attraction of the Center
The Conservative Nanny State
Political Entrepreneurs and Lunatics with Money
Postscript by Henry Farrell
Introduction by Cory Doctorow
The Book That Changed My Life
The Invention of Objectivity
Shifting the Terms of Debate: How Big Business Covered Up Global
Making Noise: How Right-wing Think Tanks Get the Word Out
Endorsing Racism: The Story of The Bell Curve
Spreading Lies: How Think Tanks Ignore the Facts
Saving Business: The Origins of Right-wing Think Tanks
Hurting Seniors: The Attack on Social Security
Fighting Back: Responses to the Mainstream Media
What Journalists Don’t: Lessons from the Times
Rachel Carson: Mass Murderer?
Is Undercover Over? Disguise Seen as Deceit by Timid Journalists
Books and Culture
Introduction by James Grimmelmann
Guest Review by Aaron Swartz: Chris Hayes’ The Twilight of the Elites
The Immorality of Freakonomics
In Offense of Classical Music
A Unified Theory of Magazines
On Intellectual Dishonesty
The Smalltalk Question
Introduction by Astra Taylor
Welcome to Unschooling
The Writings of John Holt
Intellectual Diversity at Stanford
David Horowitz on Academic Freedom
What It Means to Be an Intellectual
Getting It Wrong