Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies

Aaron Swartz Memorial Thursday, January 24th at the Internet Archive.

Downloadable version, and links to speakers.
Aaron’s girlfriend Taren’s and Open Access activist Carl Malamud’s gripping calls to action.


Eulogy by Brewster Kahle, written January 12, 2013:

Aaron Swartz, champion of the open world, committed suicide yesterday.

Working at the Internet Archive, Aaron was the architect and first coder of the OpenLibrary.org a site to open the world of books to the Internet generation.    As a user of the site, he helped put public domain books on the site that had been locked up.  Public access to the Public Domain, while seems obvious is not the position of many institutions, and this caused friction for Aaron.

As a volunteer, he helped make the RECAP system to offer free public access to public domain government court documents.   He took the bold step of seeding this system by going to a public library to download the public domain and then uploaded the documents to the Internet Archive— this got him in trouble with the FBI.   Now many millions of public domain documents have been used by over six million people for free, including researchers that could never have afforded the high fees to gain access.

If there is a sin in the open world it is locking up the public domain.  Aaron took selfless action.

When he was downloading a large number of old journal articles, he was arrested at MIT.   I was shocked by this.  When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him.  Cops.   MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.  Despite many of us supporting the lawyers for Aaron, he was still hounded by prosecutors.   (I hope JSTOR.org and MIT will act differently in the future.)

Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world.   Selfless.   Willing to cause change.

He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation.    I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication.

To mourn, I just watched this video with my son.   May I suggest you seek out your children and do the same.

May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.


Founder, Digital Librarian of the Internet Archive


Other helpful reading:

Cory Doctorow: http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html

Larry Lessig:  http://lessig.tumblr.com/post/40347463044/prosecutor-as-bully

Expert Witness in his case:  http://unhandled.com/2013/01/12/the-truth-about-aaron-swartzs-crime/

98 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies

  1. Pingback: The web responds to the death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz — Tech News and Analysis

      1. Samuel Klein

        Eric is correct in part. But while JSTOR published an open letter saying explicitly that they had confirmed no harm was done and that they didn’t want to see a case go forward, MIT did not. Despite JSTOR’s good example. Had they done so, it would have made many people’s lives, including that of the defense, much easier.

    1. streamfortyseven

      In criminal cases, it’s up to the prosecutor to press charges and pursue them. From what I understand, JSTOR requested that the charges be dropped; on the other hand, MIT’s General Counsel was in favor of pursuing the case to trial. Now, both the names of Carmen Ortiz – and MIT – will live in infamy.

        1. Mike Godwin

          It is entirely appropriate to hold Ortiz responsible for Heymann and Garland’s pursuit of the case. Ortiz spoke about the case in public, and it ultimately her decision to pursue it.

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  5. traceypooh

    So horribly sad — and maddening, too.

    We’ve lost an incredibly sensitive soul, a *ridiculously* talented and brilliant forward-thinker and coder.
    The world has lost one of it’s great Technorati, and so young. That’s the real crime here.

    I wished we could have worked more together or crossed paths again, Aaron.
    Rest peacefully, the a*holes can’t get to you now 8-(

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  12. Martin Kalfatovic

    Brewster, thanks for your thoughts on Aaron, and also for giving him a home, however brief, at the Internet Archive.

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  19. John Hinsdale

    “When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company …”

    Or wind up an MIT professor (viz unintended worm-writer Robert T. Morris). By coincidence, I learned my brother-in-law taught Mr. Swartz in grade school way back when in Illinois; apparently he was a brilliant and likable kid. What a profoundly sad story. Condolences to Mr. Swartz’s family.

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  21. Roger Wagner

    Thank you Brewster for supporting and illuminating the work of Aaron Swartz. I sincerely hope that MIT makes a meaningful statement and apology in this case, that would seem to go against the core MIT values of intelligence and innovation. The article in The Tech Online Edition was an embarrassment of non-journalism. The courage and forthrightness in writings from you, Lawrence Lessig, Alex Stamos, Tim Berners-Lee and others make MIT’s near-silence on their needed mea culpa more disappointing. Thank you again Brewster for always doing the good work and saying what needs to be said.

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  26. Robert Miller, Global Director of Books, Internet Archive

    I am stunned. It is ironic that the sad news of Aaron’s untimely death reaches me while I am in China. Aaron, you would be proud to know that the output of the work you did is now being used here, in a country, that up until a year ago, had blocked our website. Aaron, know that the articles you posted will help inform and inspire a billion people in a country that is now only a click away. Brewster, thanks for giving Aaron the support and platform of the Archive and thank you for the assistance in his legal efforts. Aaron, may we continue forward on the path you started us down.

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  37. Erik Ringmar

    Aaron Swartz spanned two worlds: the restricted world and the free. When the free world eventually comes to be taken for granted, no one will understand what the fuss was about. JStor and Mass prosecutores will long be forgotten, but Aaron Swartz will be remembered — as one of the people who made all the new options possible.

    On the overriding obligation of all academics to make their research publically available, regardless of copyright issues, see “Liberate and Disseminate,” Times Higher Education Supplement: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=401386

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  42. dianabuja

    Thanks for this lovely tribute. I live and work in Burundi (central Afraca), where the separation between ‘just’ computer-users and all of the good things that are behind-the-wall grows larger and larger, not to mention the gap between computer and non-computer users. It is all very depressing.

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  49. Kathleen Burch

    The tragedy is that this tragedy could have happened to anyone with brains, courage, and commitment to freedom. The takeaway is to join together to ensure that this will never happen again – never never never.

  50. notebook

    What a sad day it is… Aaron was truly a pioneer and a modern-day robin hood. Selfless is the perfect word to sum him up… everyone in our IRC group knew who he was, and what he stood for… and that was Freedom. Freedom of speech & freedom of information. I hope you are free now buddy, you will be missed!

  51. Menan du Plessis

    Dear Brewster, thank you for your tribute to this brilliant and visionary man. I am weeping as I write, and would like to extend deepest sympathy to his family, friends and colleagues. His life may have been short, but what a powerful life he lived – and what a great light he shone.

    I come from Africa, and when I was completing my doctoral thesis a few years ago, I depended heavily on the internet for access to books and journals. Through sites like the Internet Archive I was at times enabled to read early primary texts in the original language. This immeasurably deepened my knowledge of my field, occasionally allowing me to discover fragments of precious data, or to trace the origins of a particular idea.

    Of course our continent is vast and immensely diverse. The millions of my fellow Africans find themselves in many different circumstances, and sometimes indeed in situations of crisis. There are times of emergency when foreign nations are moved to assist, sending in greatly needed doctors or soldiers, food, blankets, and clothing. But it seems to me that perhaps the greatest and most lasting ‘aid’ any of us can receive – not only here in Africa, but around the world – is free and open access to knowledge. It seems from what you have told us, Brewster, that Aaron not only saw this, but consciously, and with great courage, set about making it a reality.

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  58. Czeslaw Jan Grycz

    Ever since learning of Aaron Swartz’ death, I—like many—have been coming to terms with the news.

    I first met Aaron at the Internet Archive and instinctively felt the ambivalent emotions others have described. I felt a paternal caring for the brilliant young man, and a darker envy for his insights and ways of thinking; an admiration that inspired me, coupled with a daunting awareness that his extraordinary gifts were ones I could never achieve; a delight at the confident humility of the man, and a trepidation about his apparent vulnerability.

    What I’ve been unable to suppress these past few days, is my anger (an emotion to which I am not frequently drawn.)

    As I write this, I am afflicted by a disease. I need only mention its name, cancer, and all will immediately recognize and know its fearful nature. I’ve been strengthened and buoyed by the immediate and genuine conversations and response to my disease. But despite surgery and almost a year of chemotherapy, just before Christmas new tumors were discovered lodged in my liver, prompting an urgent liver resection operation over the holidays. At perhaps the twilight of an extraordinarily wonderful life, I confront a disease that will most likely kill me.

    No less insidious a killer is the disease from which Aaron suffered. Except that none of his many friends and countless admirers had the knowledge or skill to candidly nor effectively address his disease. Aaron, himself, may have thought of it merely as a psychological heightened awareness. In a manner similar to his profound skills in looking beyond computational conundrums to gargantuan solutions few, but he, would ever have imagined, his depression may have made him too painfully conscious of the implications and potential fearful consequences that might exist in his future if this… or if that happened. And he died without the consolation or help of those who understood what he was suffering.

    People and institutions are culpable and surely complicit in Aaron’s death. But the fact remains that none were skilled enough to identify, discuss with him, or support him… much less remediate what Aaron lived with.

    I mourn, along with so many others, Aaron’s death. I mourn the senseless loss of what he might have continued to contribute. I pray that some young individual who knew Aaron, or might hear about him, will be inspired to devote his/her career to unmasking the stealthy killer disorder that is known as depression and it’s hideous counterparts. Killers that prey on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of those in their prime, are far more ghastly and despicable than those that prey on the older and weaker.

    To me, such a legacy would be worthy of the young man I so happily and so delightedly met for all too brief a moment.

    Czesław Jan Grycz
    Executive Producer, Great Libraries of the World

    1. Michael Hoffman

      I suffer from bipolar disorder (bipolar 2 if it makes any difference to anyone) and have been suicidal in the past. That such a brilliant light has been snuffed by depression… it breaks my heart.

      Depression, or in my case depressive phases, is a beast of a particularly horrific kind. You keep going and going and things build up and build up. The human mind, even one as brilliant as Mr. Swartz’s can only manage so much pain… eventually it catches up to you. Had I not, pretty much by chance, been treated I would probably have faced the same end Mr. Swartz did.

      I have been working to help people understand mental illness. I don’t have a whole lot of places to talk, but I’ve been a guest presenter at a course started by a friend of mine on bipolar 2. Or more specifically, MY bipolar 2.

      I was lucky. Very lucky. A support system that worked, treatment that has kept me going, though with serious cognitive consequences.

      I speak because I can. Most can’t. Either from not knowing what is happening or from the very real social stigma that can set in quite easily. I was and am lucky, and from that position I consider speaking openly about it my duty. To speak for those who can’t.

      I’m realizing after typing this that this is a bit off topic.

      In my own mind, I’m keeping Mr. Swartz’s situation as one more reason, and such a strong reason, to keep going.

      I know the tragedy is greater than just the illness. But mental illness is what I know. That’s what I can talk about. I’m not armed to battle with the absurdities exposed by this in the legal perversity, and from the outcry I believe there are those who can and will pursue this.

      I hope that Swartz’s family and partner have the support they need to mourn, and I hope that this case takes a place in the public consciousness.

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  60. Douglas Galbi

    The tragedy of Aaron Swartz is more than the tragedy of personal illnesses. Swartz’s family and partner wrote:

    Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

    I think that’s a fair statement. Some related thoughts.

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  66. Emorgan

    We must be vigilant to maintain freedom of the internet and freedom of the public domain as a collective whole ;so as not to be harnessed by monetary greed on the part of marketeers, corporations, bias politicians and lobbyist who attempt to sway an already politically corrupt system.

    My condolences to the Swartz family. Thank you for this beautiful tribute Brewster. Aaron Swartz rest in peace for you shall always be remembered in all our hearts by your brilliant spirit in support of the greatest good for the greatest number. We will miss you very much.

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  70. MikeH

    Its a great loss for all of us and surely more than that for his family.
    As a father i say: why
    As a friend i say: why
    As human beings we all have to ask us why things are going like this…

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  72. W. Roberts

    He was a thief of other people’s work product and investment. Why does he deserve glorification and canonization?

    1. J.Gerdjikova

      Shame for your words, Mr Roberts!
      Life is precious! Whatever copyright does not worth such a price. That may be a computer crime, but this young bright man is not a killer and there is no harm done. Such smart talented people must be protected, not prosecuted. The progress of humanity is only able by efforts of such intelligent brave people like Aaron Swartz in struggle for free and open access to knowledge.
      I offer condolence to the Swartz Family. His parents must be proud with their extraordinary son Aaron. His death is not only a personal tragedy. It is a tragedy for whole internet world. I am from Bulgaria and sorrow for the extraordinary professional and so young man dedicated in fight for free knowledge.

    2. Herman Martin

      The only thing I say to you sir is this…Remember the Boston Tea Party? Remember the pilgrims who came to this country for freedom?…Maybe your ancestors, without their “rebellion” you may still in England or Europe or wherever your ancestors came from.

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    In my student days 25 years back, I am a frequent visitor of Libraries like city, district and state. Now that the time has changed , I am addicted to internet for information.
    Definitely, one should thank persons that help translating physical data in to digital record.
    But, at the same time one should also have courage to face ground realities.
    Suicide is the one that is done by timid people or may be it is a cover up / misrepresentation.
    In the present day modern Twenty first century life, death is of 2 types.
    The first one is natural which is a physical problem. But in most of the cases it comes only after 75 years of age.
    The second one is artificial which is the most common case nowadays.
    One suddenly gets a heart attack / one gets pain in particular part of body resulting in its failure leading to death.
    These types of death are electro magnetically induced developments. May be it is FBI / PENTAGON or whatever it is, there is no proof.
    And unless one under goes / suffers the same, he cannot realize it.
    As all of us know, struggle for existence is the character of nature / life
    Thus, real life struggles for its survival.
    And only the fittest survives.
    (——- with apologies to FBI /PENTAGON)

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