A lot has been written about Aaron Swartz – Reddit co-founder and child prodigy extraordinaire – who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2012. He hanged himself weeks before he was about to stand trial. His crime? – Unauthorized downloading of articles from a digital library in order to make them freely available to the online community at a later date.
A statement from his family read thus:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
Whatever be the reason for his suicide, there is no doubt that we have lost an individual who contributed significantly to how the Internet functions today. Through this article, we highlight the different milestones in Aaron’s life:
- In 1999 – at the age of 13 – Aaron won the ArsDigita Prize award, which has been constituted to recognize young people who developed useful and collaborative non-commercial sites. This was his first ever recognition and gave him an opportunity to interact with Internet gurus at MIT.
- In 2000, he joined the RSS-DEV Working Group and co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, which has pioneered the way we publish stories on the Internet.
- In 2005, Aaron launched the wiki platform Infogami, which later merged with Reddit. Slowly but steadily, the newly formed Reddit grew to a site amassing millions in daily visitors. Reddit was bought by CondéNet in 2006 and Aaron continued to work with them. In 2007, Aaron was asked to resign from the company he actually helped to found. This led Aaron to a state of depression though much of 2007.
- In 2010, Aaron founded Demand Progress, a group that fought for digital rights and successfully prevented the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill. Aaron provided strong support in favor of Open access (OA), a practice that provided unrestricted access to scholarly journal articles via the Internet.
Post-2010, Aaron was charged with unlawfully extracting information from a protected computer – this charge is in relation to his downloading of close to 4 million academic articles from JOSTOR, a digital library that traces its roots back to 1995. The charges carried a potential fine of up to $1 million and a potential prison term of up to 35 years.
Aaron was only 26 years old when he left us for another world – a promising life cut short. He will be missed by the Internet fraternity.
We depart with this wonderful quote by Birgitta Jonsdottir, Icelandic Member of Parliament:
“Aaron Swartz was the embodiment of the future for the information age and its freedoms we hold so dear. The internet was our mutual home and I feel even if I never met him in person that I lost someone from my tribe. He was and will be an inspiration to carry on our fight to keep the internet free, wild and borderless. Rest in Pixels.”