When you consider the life story of Aaron Swartz, many questions come to mind. Most notably, what if? What if Swartz had lived past age 26? What might have he accomplished? Let’s take a closer look at this month’s edition of Pioneers in Tech.
- At age 14, Swartz helped developed RSS web feeds, enabling aggregation of content and the automated publication of frequently updated data, including blog posts, news stories, and podcasts.
- Swartz designed the code layer for Creative Commons licenses and was involved in the creation of the Internet Archives’ Open Library.
- At age 19, he co-programmed Reddit, the seventh-most visited website in the world as of October 2023.
Legacy of advocacy
Swartz had a passion for making online information free and open to the public. At the time of his death by suicide, he was facing pending federal charges of wire fraud and computer fraud. This was punishable by up to 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. Swartz had used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network to access JSTOR, a nonprofit subscription database of academic journals and other scholarly works.
Activists like Swartz felt the information should be available for free. Swartz wrote a script that downloaded 20 million pages of JSTOR content before he was caught. He turned over his hard drive. While JSTOR opted not to pursue charges, federal prosecutors pushed forward, indicting Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said. Prosecutors refused any plea deal that did not include jail time.
Following his passing, the bill Aaron’s Law was introduced in Congress, though it has never passed. The bill sought to revise the CFAA to make it less vague and open to overreach. The American Library Association posthumously presented its James Madison Award to Swartz in 2013 in recognition of his advocacy for “public participation in government and unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles.”
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