If you're a regular reader of this site, then you probably know who Aaron Swartz is: If not from his technological contributions, then from the incident that ultimately cost him his life.
I can't remember exactly how I became aware of Swartz's work, but it was well before his strident activism, and his downloading of JSTOR documents from a closet at MIT. I do remember that I became fully engaged in his work when I was looking for a less cumbersome Python web framework than Django. His creation, web.py, was a revelation for those that had spent time in Django, and wondered why it felt so heavy-handed (although less cumbersome than Ruby on Rails). Swartz had utilized web.py at Reddit when he was partnered up with Reddit's co-founders when they were still growing out of YCombinator.
From that point forward, I always kept an eye on Swartz's work, but he slowly moved more and more out of the mold of a boots-on-the-ground programmer, and began focusing on activism. Without a doubt, Swartz was probably the most effective "hacktivist" through legal channels, leading the charge that eventually prevented the passage of SOPA and PIPA--laws that were sure things until the technology industry uniformly rose up against them.
It was an absolute shock to me when I read of Swartz's suicide. Even though I never met the man in person, it's a rather surreal situation when somebody you've been reading and following is suddenly gone. I've made legitimate friendship with people online that I haven't met in real life, and others that I met after first knowing them online. To think that one day one of them could completely disappear from communications shines a lot of light on the impermanence of the world.
Several years ago, there was a Kickstarter campaign to create a documentary detailing Swartz's life, accomplishments, legal struggles, and death. It was called The Internet's Own Boy. The documentary has been out for a while, but I just had the opportunity to watch it a few weekends ago.
If you are at all involved in technology or activism, you need to watch it. It paints the portrait of a genius who worked on technological specifications at 14-15 years old, dropped out of college, and continuously built or contributed to software designed to promote knowledge across the globe. It follows Swartz from his early years, to his work with Reddit, to his ultimate departure after Conde Naste bought the site. It was unfortunate that the founders of Reddit decided not to contribute to the documentary. Despite any differences that resulted in their crumbling relationship, Swartz's contributions to the technology industry are undeniable, and warrant recognition.
After his departure from Reddit, Swartz began his focus on hackivism, and eventually founded Demand Progress. It was through Demand Progress that he was able to lead the resistance against SOPA and PIPA. It was an important victory for maintaining Net Neutrality for the Internet.
Swartz's belief that knowledge should be freely accessible went beyond just Net Neutrality. There is a lot of publicly funded research that, once completed, is published in journals that are less than accessible to the average American, and even to other researchers. They sit tagged with high prices inside of publication databases, requiring a large investment for a subscription, or single purchases costing more than taking the average family of four out to a nice dinner at a low end chain restaurant.
Swartz's believed that the public had already paid for this research, and so it should be available outside of a paywall. Having access to MIT, he plugged a computer and a hard drive into their network in a wiring closet, and proceeded to download file after file from the JSTOR database. He was eventually arrested by the MIT police and the Secret Service. He was indicted on 13 charges, which carried a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11th, 2013. After the fact, the government dropped all charges and Congress began asking questions about why such a harsh penalty was pursued, eventually leading to an investigation. As a part of the aftermath, an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) known as Aaron's Law was introduced in Congress, but stalled due to lobbying by Oracle. This amendment would have removed terms of service violations from the CFAA and the wire fraud statute.
Despite such a sad ending, Swartz's legacy remains. Demand Progress is still on the front lines of activism, fighting for the progress of humanity. RSS (a schema he helped define as a teenager) is still used for article and blog post consumption, and the Internet Archive still maintains his Open Library project. Reddit--although it has since moved away from web.py--is still a strong, and highly influential, online community.
As far the documentary, it's well worth the watch just to spend some time contemplating the life and death of one of the truly great hacktivist minds in Internet culture history.
(Photo by Sage Ross)