Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013)

American programmer, author, human rights and internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on 1/11/2013 in his house in Brooklyn, New York. He was only 26 but managed to achieve a lot in this short period of time. By working on XML when he was only 16, he made it possible for us to gigantic internet content by contributing to the development of RSS. He was one of the founders of the phenomenal website Reddit. Along with Lawrence Lessig, he was also part of the group that constructed Creative Commons. He was the founder of Demand Progress (http://demandprogress.org/) which enacted many online campaigns that supported civil rights and responsibilities on the web.

Nevertheless, most of us got to know Swartz when he initiated internet activism that pre-empted bills like SOPA and PIPA, which would enable corporations to implement online censorship. This campaign took its place in the history of internet activism and set an example for ACTA, a trade agreement which would violate the neutrality of the web. It also set an example for campaigns against UN, which tried to give the control of internet to nation-states, as well as campaigns against WCIT conference of ITU. Aaron Swartz inspired us with his responsibility and sensitivity, but first with his commitment to the free circulation of and access to knowledge.

Aaron Swartz’s suicide is a very sad but not an individual event. Swartz was being seriously bullied by FBI for a while. There are a lot of reasons for FBI and the US government to be angry at Swartz. For instance in 2008, Swartz founded RECAP and invited the US citizens to use it as an alternative to PACER, which was selling the US laws and legal decisions, which are in essence public goods. By spending his own resources – a small fortune – he opened alone 20 % of US legal system to the public. FBI and US Department of Justice were enraged. Swartz’s following successes such as SOPA/PIPA and Demand Progress did not help. Violating its own principles such as egalitarianism and proportionality, US Department of Justice became involved in this disproportional legal adventure in order to teach so-called lessons with its feelings of revenge.

To be threatened with being deprived of your life for 35 years can make one do many things. This is a very humane feeling. In that sense, it is almost impossible not to think the impact of this violence and illegal threat as far as Swartz’s suicide. Indeed, his close friends such as Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow do think that US authorities are partially responsible for his death. His family will probably sue FBI and US Department of Justice (http://rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com/post/40372208044/official-statement-from-the-family-and-partner-of-aaron). MIT, on the other hand, is being protested for not standing behind Swartz’s case. Lawrence Lessig, who is also Swartz’s lawyer for the JSTOR case, has started a petition for the prosecutor Carmen Ortiz to be relieved of duty (http://goo.gl/poYC4).

Lessig’s following statement actually makes it very clear: Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.” (http://goo.gl/1tkMv)

Today, academics pay their tribute to Aaron Swartz by spreading their academic articles with a hashtag #pdftribute. The writings of Doctorow, Glenn Greenwald, Kevin Poulsen and especially Quinn and what’s been shared on Hackernews or Reddit reveal what Swartz’s legacy is (http://goo.gl/hlE0u; http://goo.gl/2yRM9; http://goo.gl/eKbs1; http://goo.gl/T02Zg; http://goo.gl/3SmLY; http://goo.gl/Gg6mr)..

That’s true. Aaron Swartz was killed by the USA, which constructs itself as an extension of corporatism and an enemy of its own people. Swartz, who said “With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past” was killed by a state that was scared of the liberation potential that he represented.

RIP Aaron Swartz. We can  honor your soul by increasing the number of people who liberate knowledge.

Alternative Informatics Association

Translation: Ergin Bulut is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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