Today is Aaron Swartz day, and I ask that you all take a minute to familiarise yourself with this person of unique skill, insight, and output.
Even if you’re not technical, you probably use (either directly or indirectly) many technologies he developed, managed, and which were developed off the back of policies he helped define. Many of these are fundamental to the richer features of the World Wide Web as we know it today. To name a few, these include Reddit, RSS feeds, markdown, creative commons licensing, the RDF/XML schema (instrumental to my research, even), and tor2web. Throughout my career in technology, I personally find myself frequently surprised to realise I’m using a technology I had no idea he was involved in creating. All of this was achieved by the time he was 26 years old.
He was a believer in and an activist for open access and free availability of data and knowledge. Working towards this goal, he was an active writer and podcaster on the matter. He also worked towards it directly.
In 2010, he used a guest account provided to him by MIT to download a large number of academic journal articles from a database called JSTOR. At this time, it’s widely held that he broke no laws (or even the JSTOR terms of service), though presumably he intended to publish these documents online. Open access initiatives like this have flourished since, and websites like LibGen and SciHub are widely used throughout academia to gain access to documents otherwise held behind extremely exorbitant paywalls - rendering a large body of knowledge inaccessible to academic peers and the public.
I would not like to go too far into discussion of the ethics of the modern academic publishing system, or of the ethics of Aaron’s actions, but the situation developed such that Aaron was federally indicted on a number of charges widely believed to be exorbitant and unfair, particularly considering that at this point he had committed no crime; he was charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. These charges carry a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison, and $1 million in fines.
Following some legal back-and-forth, Aaron eventually and tragically committed suicide in 2013. I mourn the premature loss of such a bright individual, who was so instrumental both to the technology of the modern Web, and to the properties which make it such a powerful vehicle for the improvement of our culture and society: free and universal access to knowledge for humanity.