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Friday, January 25, 2013

Oh Aaron! Why has the light gone out so soon!

He was a wonder kid!

A topnotch computer programmer.  

An activist who took upon himself the job of making knowledge accessible to everybody at no cost.

He was born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 8, 1986 to Susan and Robert Swartz. He was  named Aaron – Aaron Swartz.

His father, Robert, ran a software company, the Mark Williams Company that created Coherent—one of the first Unix-like operating systems for IBM PCs and several C programming language compilers.

Obviously, right from an early age, Aaron had immersed himself in playing with computers, writing programs, Internet and Internet culture.  

Hardly at the age of around 13, he established the—a kind of Wikipedia, through which he wanted to make the world’s knowledge available from one website to everybody freely. The wonder is, even at that tender age he didn’t want to clutter his site with ads, for in his opinion, Internet is “based on open standards and freedom, not ads.”

In 2000 he won the ArsDigita Prize for developing a “useful, educational, and collaborative” noncommercial website— The Info Network.

At the young age of 14 years, he, working with Tim Berners-Lee, helped write the code for RSS that allows people to subscribe to online information.

At about the age of 19, he could develop Reddit—today’s web’s most popular bulletin board. Later, he did make lots of money by selling it to Conde Nast in 2006. 

Around the same time, Swartz, acquiring the complete bibliographic dataset of the US Library of Congress, made it freely available to everyone by posting it on the Open Library.

This high-school dropout, educating himself by reading innumerable number of books, mostly philosophy, proclaimed in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008: “take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.”

Swartz was a co-founder of an advocacy group, Demand Progress, that organizes people online to “take action by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word” about civil liberties, government reform, and other issues. He actively campaigned against the passing of the SOPA bill meant for combating copyright violations on the Internet.

In late 2010 and early 2011, Aaron Swartz, who in the  words of Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo! News correspondent, “agitated without cease—or compensation—for the free-culture movement”, sleeping in a cupboard and placing his laptop in it surreptitiously, could get it plugged into the computer network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and download some 4.8 million documents from JSTOR—a private, subscription-based nonprofit publisher of world’s scholarly work and make it available against payment—by running a script, namely,, for making it available to everybody at no cost, for he believed that most of the work under such publications was funded by the governments.

The MIT-JSTOR episode, of course, got him into deep trouble—the police arrested him charging on 13 counts that included wire fraud and theft of information. There is a strong belief in certain sections that the charges brought by federal prosecutor were quite disproportionate to what he had done, for MIT and JSTOR had settled the matter with him; JSTOR had indeed made some of its literature available to the public freely. But for the prosecution, “stealing is stealing.” The trial could have led to an imprisonment up to 35 years, but the Prosecutors offered Swartz six months jail if he pleaded guilty.

But thisenormously sweet and generous kid”—who urged the readers of his weblog to “look up, not down”, “embrace your failings”, “lean into the pain”—being “overwhelmed” by the prosecution, which in the words of Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law, Harvard University, who incidentally mentored him for about 10 years, became “too much to bear”, could not follow his own weblog advice, and instead killed himself, on January 11, at the age of 26, by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

If only, the Law had been kind enough to appreciate the intent behind his stealing the information rather than see the crime per see, who knows, what more this prodigious kid, with his amazing intelligence and declared commitment for making “the Internet and the world a fairer, better place”, might have delivered to us!

Alas! The light has gone out.


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