We are a lesser world without Aaron Swartz (1986-2013). In 2010 and 2011, Aaron downloaded a lot of academic documents from JSTOR (the online library of scholarly articles) because he believed more information in more hands would make the world a better place. A noble idea, but the Department of Justice decided to make an example of him. Aaron faced 35 years in jail and $1 milliion in fines before he decided to commit suicide. Watch this moving talk from 2012 about how he helped stopped COICA and SOPA, two congressional bills that would have essentially created a great American firewall and made it easy to censor the Internet. We'll miss you, Aaron.
You should really watch the whole speech; it’s a great inspirational story, but here are my favorite parts:
At 2:40, we learn about Congress' one weakness when it comes to the First Amendment, and how it can be exploited for bad things.
At 3:45, he explains how easy it is to violate copyright. Just ask the senator who did it on accident.
At 4:11, he breaks down the modern battle of the Internet in a few great metaphors.
At 5:13, you'll learn just how much Congress had the deck stacked against him.
At 7:50, you'll hear about what kind of groups control Washington.
At 9:58, he explains how to make an online petition actually useful.
At 13:48, we learn that "We have to stop soap" is not a great pickup line.
At 14:25, he tells us how the Internet population, made up of companies and individuals, banded together like the Power Rangers.
At 15:30, he tells a story about a different senator who went completely insane when they met.
At 17:10, learn how to "melt the phone lines of Congress."
At 18:55, where he points out that this was really all done by the people. Make sure you watch from this point on; it's quite eloquent. It makes me proud of the Internet, even the trolls.
UPDATE: Before commenting on this, I really encourage everyone to read the family statement (emphasis mine):
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.