Aaron Swartz, coder, writer, archivist and activist, took his own life in New York on Friday.
Aaron worked tirelessly to open up and maximise the societal impact of information in three areas which are central to our work at the Foundation: public domain cultural works, public sector information, and open access to publicly funded research.
He was one of the original architects behind the Internet Archive’s Open Library project, which aims to create ‘one web page for every book’. While he was there we compared notes about trying to automatically estimate which works are in the public domain in different countries around the world.
This was part of a broader vision to enable public access to the public domain, and to ensure that digitisation initiatives result in open digital copies of public domain works that everyone is free to use and enjoy, not just copies owned and protected by large corporations who might sell or restrict access to the world’s heritage.
Around this time Aaron and I met in San Francisco to co-draft a petition to the Library of Congress to encourage them to take a leading role in opening up data from the world’s libraries and memory institutions. This was several years before a wave of institutions started explicitly opening up data about their holdings.
We remained in contact regarding his work on open government data in the US. Aaron was involved in drafting the highly influential 8 principles for open government data. We wanted to try to better coordinate developments on either side of the Atlantic.
Later he was in the papers for downloading around a fifth of the US government’s huge Public Access to Court Records (PACER) system, around 780 gigabytes, and releasing it for free to the public (access was usually charged by the page) – which earned him an FBI file.
In his 2008 Guerilla Open Access Manifesto Aaron argued that “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” and, “in the grand tradition of civil disobedience”, urged internet users to “fight back”:
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
In 2010 he founded Demand Progress, which helped to mobilise over a million people in response to proposed legislation like the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA).
In 2011 he again hit the headlines when he was arrested for downloading roughly 4 million subscription-only academic articles from JSTOR by placing a laptop in a computer cupboard at MIT and using this to gain unauthorised access to the JSTOR service. The prosecution alleged that he intended to make these articles freely available on the web.
Last September the US Federal Government raised the felony count from four to thirteen, which meant that Aaron was potentially facing a total of 50+ years and a fine in the area of $4 million for his actions. His family suggested that the case was a factor in his death – and blamed the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office for “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” and MIT for “refus[ing] to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles”. The president of MIT has just announced that he has ordered an investigation into their role in Aaron’s prosecution.
As Peter Eckersley from the Electronic Frontier Foundation commented on Saturday:
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.
While Aaron was deeply involved in all kinds of technical, scholarly and organising activities to promote an open digital commons and an open internet – from helping to develop RSS 1.0 and Markdown, to early sketches of the semantic web with some of its pioneers and work on the first technical implementations of the Creative Commons licenses – he also never lost sight of the bigger picture, of what it was all for. He was a talented coder and knew how to take a principled stance, but he was never one to get lost in detail or dogma. From his writings about how data-driven transparency initiatives are not enough to effect change in themselves, to his guide to developing software that addresses real needs, he was always aware of the fact that using the information, technology and the internet to change the world is not easy, and requires graft, skill, scrutiny, critical reflection and taking risks.
Aaron’s passing is a tremendously sad and significant loss. Long live his legacy.
To find out more about Aaron’s life and works, you can look at his writings and the memorial site set up by his family. You can also read tributes from Tim Berners-Lee, Cory Doctorow, Brewster Kahle, Lawrence Lessig, and Erik Moeller, and read obituaries and news articles on the BBC, the Economist, Forbes, Gigaom, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Observer, Techdirt, The Telegraph, Vice and Wired. In tribute, hundreds of academics have started tweeting links to their research papers using the hashtag #pdftribute. The Internet Archive has started an Aaron Swartz Collection.
Dr. Jonathan Gray is Lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London, where he is currently writing a book on data worlds. He is also Cofounder of the Public Data Lab; and Research Associate at the Digital Methods Initiative (University of Amsterdam) and the médialab (Sciences Po, Paris). More about his work can be found at jonathangray.org and he tweets at @jwyg.