The Tragic Death of a Commons Hero: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)
The Tragic Death of a Commons Hero
Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)
By David Bollier
Aaron Swartz’s death is a sobering story about the collision of free culture activism with vindicative prosecutorial powers. It’s also about an amazing tech wizard and the personal costs of his idealism. Here’s hoping that Swartz’s tragic suicide at age 26 prompts some serious reflection about the grotesque penalties for a victimless computer crime and the unchecked power of federal prosecutors to intimidate defendants. Perhaps MIT, too, should reflect deeply on its core mission as an academic institution – to help share more knowledge, not fence it off.
Swartz was a hacker-wunderkind, a boy genius who played a significant role in many tech innovations affecting the Internet: RDF tags for Creative Commons licenses; a version of RSS software for syndicating web content; an early version of the platform that became Reddit, the user-driven news website. In 2006, when I interviewed Swartz for my book Viral Spiral, I was astonished to encounter a 19-year-old kid who had already done the path-breaking technical work that I just mentioned.
Swartz had been a junior high school student when he was doing mind-bending coding and design work for the Creative Commons licenses and their technical protocols. “I remember these moments when I was, like, sitting in the locker room, typing on my laptop, in these debates, and having to close it because the bell rang and I had to get back to class….”
When a windfall of cash came Swartz’s way following the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast, Swartz did not launch a new startup to make still more money. He intensified his activism and coding on behalf of free culture. He sought out new projects that would make information on the Internet more accessible to everyone. ..................(more)