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Freeing the web: ten things to know about Aaron Swartz

On the second anniversary of Swartz's death, we remember the genius hacktivist who pioneered Reddit and RSS

Revered as much for his political activism as his talent for programming, Aaron Swartz fought for transparency in the digital world. Swartz’s brand of hacktivism has become hugely influential in a society defined by technology. A proponent of open access to scientific research, he fought to liberate data in an increasingly shut-up cyberspace, but his efforts drove him to his death. When the NSA scandal gave the issue of online privacy a global platform, Swartz’s political ideals were thrust onto the US government agenda once again. On the second anniversary of his passing, Dazed retraces his life and legacy.


At the age of 14, Swartz embarked on the first project to gain him notoriety in the programming community: RSS, a revolutionary web delivery tool. It provided a standard format for publishing frequently updated content, like blog articles and news headlines. Schwarz was one of thirteen in the working group that developed the syndication system.


Swartz didn’t return to Stanford University after completing his first year in 2005. He was consumed by working on his start-up Infogami, developing the framework for Python. This work got him involved with social media platform Reddit; they needed help rewriting their code using Python and Swartz’s framework. Infogami and Reddit subsequently merged, and Reddit’s popularity soared soon after.


Swartz broadcast his beliefs on freedom of information in 2008 with his widely circulated Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. Promoting an issue still hotly debated today, Swartz argued that scientists shouldn’t have to pay private corporations to read each other’s research, and that society’s academic heritage should be freely available to everyone. On Swartz’s death, scholars began publically posting their work as a tribute, under #pdftribute.


In a prelude to his later confrontation with the authorities, Swartz helped release court documents free of charge, bypassing the paywall on the government website PACER. Swartz’s programme published about 2.7 million documents on before the authorities could regain control of their system. The download revealed that the records were littered with privacy violations, including medical records and names of confidential informants.


To encourage effective online activism and progressive politics, Swartz helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in 2009. The group, who were indebted to him for his help in their first twenty months, were devastated by his death, releasing a statement saying, “His suicide followed an over-zealous prosecution for a crime with no victims – by a Justice Department that has yet to prosecute the Wall Street bankers who destroyed our economy and harmed millions of lives."


In 2011, Swartz collaborated with Kevin Poulsen to design an electronic drop box for anonymous informants wanting to leak information to news organisations. The code was finished the December before Swartz look his own life. The New Yorker first launched the system five months later, in a version named Strongbox.


As co-founder of the organisation Demand Progress, Swartz played a central role in uprooting congressional backing for SOPA, which was defeated in 2012. The bill was introduced to enable the US government to block online copyright infringement, but the tech scene reacted fiercely, saying the legislation would place unacceptable burdens on internet providers and expose libraries to prosecution. Joining the protest against the bill, Wikipedia, Google, and an estimated 7,000 other websites synchronised a service blackout on January 18, 2012.


MIT police arrested Swartz on January 6, 2011, after he downloaded 4 million articles from JSTOR; it was thought he intended to release them publically. As a research fellow at Harvard University, he accessed the academic database on his own account. His faced a possible 35 years in jail and $1million of fines “based on allegations that he downloaded articles that he was entitled to get free”, as an article in The New York Times phrased it.


During plea negotiations, the prosecutors said they would recommend a six-month sentence for Swartz if he pleaded guilty to his 13-count indictment including computer fraud, wire fraud and information theft. Swartz declined. After the prosecutors rejected Swartz’s counter-offer, his partner found him dead in their Brooklyn apartment. Swartz’s alleged victims, MIT and JSTOR, had been unwilling to pursue charges, emboldening the widespread outcry about the prosecution’s voracity. At his son’s funeral, Robert Swartz said, “Aaron was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles.”


Swartz’s extraordinary story was immortalised in the documentary The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, released a year after his suicide. For many, the circumstances of his death made him a martyr for internet freedom, and painted the US judicial system as a brute. With the NSA scandal that unfolded in 2014, the contentious issue of online privacy still haunts the US government, and Swartz remains the poster boy for hacktivism.

Watch The Internet's Own Boy in full below: