Aaron Swartz's Suicide Puts Internet Openness Fight In Spotlight

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Photo: Flickr via Joi Ito

Aaron Swartz, the Highland Park-raised advocate for Internet openness, took his own life Friday under the shadow of a federal prosecution for allegedly downloading nearly 5 million academic journal articles without authorization. But with his death, his cause has gained new momentum.Hundreds of researchers Monday posted links to free copies of their work in an online tribute to Swartz, while some who promote open access to academic papers say the movement might have reached a turning point.

“It’s been unbelievable to see the level of attention this issue is receiving in light of the tragedy of Aaron’s death,” said Heather Joseph of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. “Certainly the idea of academics, scientists and the general public getting open access to information is getting play in a way I can only hope that will make this vision a reality sooner rather than later.”

The eldest of Robert and Susan Swartz’s three boys, Aaron Swartz started playing with computers at the age of 3, his father said. He wrote his first program before he was 10, figuring out how to solve a sudoku-like puzzle.

The Swartz household had Internet access before most, and that shaped Aaron Swartz’s view of the cost and value of knowledge, his father said. Even as a child, he discussed the nature of copyright and decided that digital information with no underlying cost should be free. (He pointedly did not support the piracy of things such as music and movies, his father said.)

At the same time, his family emphasised the importance of advocacy. His grandfather, William Swartz, founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation and was honored for his work with the Pugwash organisation, which seeks to reduce armed conflicts. Pugwash won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, the year Aaron turned 9 years old.

“He grew up in an environment where those sort of things were held in high esteem, the notion of making the world a better place,” Robert Swartz said.

That outlook became clear at 13, when he gained national acclaim for creating a do-it-yourself online encyclopedia that predated the launch of Wikipedia. It was the height of the dot-com boom, yet his site, The Info Network, was bereft of advertising, subscription fees or any other way to generate money.

“That’s not what the Internet was made for,” he told the Tribune at the time. “It was based on open standards and freedom, not ads.”

Unhappy at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Swartz left after his freshman year to be home-schooled by his parents, supplementing his education with classes at Lake Forest College. When he was 17, he headed to Stanford University.

He stayed only a year, but soon he became a tech world superstar. He co-founded the popular Reddit website and took a lead role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act, a proposed copyright protection law that Swartz and other advocates contended would have clamped down too hard on Internet freedom.

Some of his own programming was an attempt to promote free, easily accessible information. In 2008 he focused on PACER, a government-run archive of federal court filings. It charged users 8 cents a page to access documents (the fee has since risen to 10 cents), but taking advantage of a free trial period, Swartz downloaded more than 18 million pages.

“He felt passionately that our system of democracy is based on an informed citizenry,” said Carl Malamud, a California-based public domain advocate who collaborated with Swartz. “He felt strongly enough about it that he wanted to do something.”

The FBI looked into the mass downloading — Swartz later put the agency’s case file on his blog — but closed the investigation with no charges filed.

Swartz’s PACER exploits came just a few months after he and some colleagues posted what they called the Guerilla (sic) Open Access Manifesto, which described free public access to scholarly papers as a moral imperative.

Academic journals can cost university libraries hundreds of dollars per title per year, while individual articles available online frequently carry price tags of $30 and up. A service called JSTOR, which archives older articles, can cost a school more than $50,000 annually.

Heather Joseph said that in response to the high prices, the “open access” movement took shape about a decade ago. Its supporters aim to make scholarly articles free to the reader, often by having the paper’s author or his or her institution pay for peer review and publication.

But the open access manifesto called for a bolder approach: “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks,” it said.

In September 2010, federal prosecutors say, Swartz took a step toward that goal by breaking into a computer wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and using a switch to tap into the school’s computer network. From there, he allegedly downloaded millions of journal articles from JSTOR.

The government’s indictment claims that Swartz intended to put those articles on file-sharing sites, but his attorney, Elliot Peters, said Swartz never did. The office of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston did not return messages seeking comment.

Peters argued that Swartz did nothing wrong because MIT ran an open computer network, and that Swartz had gained legitimate access to JSTOR by logging in as a guest. JSTOR, a nonprofit service, said in a statement that it had settled civil claims with Swartz in June 2011 — one month before his prosecution began.

Swartz, who was further strained by a serious illness that struck his mother last year, took the case hard. Still, Robert Swartz said his son was not perpetually depressed or scared of a prison sentence that the family believed could be as long as 30 years — he was worried that a finding of guilt could diminish his prospects forever.

“If you look at (a) life like Aaron’s and you see a felony conviction, it substantially restricts what you can do with your life,” Robert Swartz said.

Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment Friday, authorities said.

MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said in a statement that he was saddened by Swartz’s death and announced a probe of the school’s actions in the case.

“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Reif wrote in an email. “I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”

On Monday, federal prosecutors dismissed the case against Swartz.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Twitter accounts lit up with the hashtag #pdftribute, a call for researchers to self-publish their papers online in honour of Swartz.

One who responded was Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He said academic publishing has loosened in recent years, with more papers than ever available for no charge. While questions remain about how to pay for it all, he said, many agree with Swartz’s belief that the information should be open.

“For research to be optimally useful, it has to be available,” Jones said. “If we keep it from other people, it’s questionable what the purpose of it is.”

SEE ALSO: Aaron Swartz’s Death Is A Tragedy — And There Are Some Questions That Need To Be Answered

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