Loss of an Internet genius
Aaron Swartz ... programmer, activist, and Wikipedian of rare talent.
Comforting those grieving after the loss of a loved one is an impossible task. How then, can an entire community be comforted? The Internet struggled to answer that question this week after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a celebrated free-culture activist, programmer, and Wikipedian at the age of 26.
Aaron wore many Internet hats during his life. At the age of just 14 he played a key role in the initial RSS specification. While still a teenager, he served on the RDF core working group at the World Wide Web Consortium, defined the RDF XML content type and founded Infogami, which quickly merged with the social news and entertainment website, Reddit. Around the same time, he was part of the team that started Creative Commons.
In 2006 he ran into controversy for downloading and posting the bibliographic metadata of every book in the Library of Congress, which was in the public domain but available only for a fee. A more serious controversy occurred in 2008 when he downloaded about 20% of the entire PACER database, which allows public access to public domain US federal court documents, although ironically this required users to pay a fee. By taking advantage of a pilot program offering free access at certain public libraries, Aaron was able to download nearly two million documents before his access was revoked. He posted these documents openly on the Internet, prompting an FBI investigation, but no charges were ever filed. In 2010, he co-founded the Internet activist organization Demand Progress, which played a central role in the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), alongside Aaron's separate, personal contributions to the debate.
In July 2011, Aaron was charged with four felonies, three stemming from the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. At issue was his use of an automated program to download 4.8 million scholarly articles from JSTOR by deploying the network infrastructure of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (Signpost coverage). Ironically, Aaron did not disseminate any of the files, and after he handed over to JSTOR the copies he had made, the digital library settled "any civil claims [it] may have had".
||It's beyond my pay grade to figure out how many years in prison that all [thirteen felonies] could be, when taking into account the complexities of sentencing law. Let's leave it at a large scary number. Enough to ruin someone's life.
These felony charges could have sent Aaron to prison for 35 years and have fined him more than $1 million. Carmen Ortiz, the federal prosecutor overseeing the case, said "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars." In September, the government added nine charges, moving the total from four to thirteen felonies, which could have put Aaron behind bars for more than 50 years, with a fine of $4 million dollars.
On January 9, Ortiz’s office rejected an arrangement that would have kept Aaron out of prison. Two days later, he was found dead in his New York apartment.
Obituaries were published in mainstream news outlets such as the Economist, NPR, Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian, and BBC, and the websites of organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Internet Archive, the Open Knowledge Foundation, JSTOR and SPARC.
The most poignant tributes, however, came from those who knew Aaron. Three of the most prominent came from close friends, including Cory Doctorow, Quinn Norton, and danah boyd. boyd commented:
Many people want the heads of the key administrators who helped create the context in which Aaron took his life. I completely understand where they're coming from. But I also fear the likelihood that Aaron will be turned into a martyr, an abstraction of a geek activist destroyed by the State. Because he was a lot more than that—lovable and flawed, passionate and strong-willed, brilliant and infuriatingly stupid. It'll be easy for folks to rally cry for revenge in his name. But not much is gained from reifying the us vs. them game that got us here. There has to be another way.
Others recalled Aaron's humorous antics, such as the time he was interviewed for a New York Times story. The day it was published, he parodied a personal ad on his blog, asking readers: "Attention attractive people: Are you looking for someone respectable enough that they've been personally vetted by the New York Times, but has enough of a bad-boy streak that the vetting was because they 'liberated' millions of dollars of government documents? If so, look no further than page A14 of today's New York Times."
In a tribute, the New York Times published recollections from their reporter who had been covering Aaron's case, John Schwartz. Schwartz (not related to Aaron) enjoyed his "obvious brilliance" and "cutting wit". Affectionately, he said, "I liked him. He was about the age of my daughter; I told him that my own father is Aaron Schwartz, so I felt funny talking with him. I then joked that if she hadn't been in a committed relationship at the time of our interviews, I might have tried to set them up. He smiled awkwardly at my old-guy gaffe."
Many people focused on what they perceived to be unjust charges against Aaron. His family said that Aaron's death was a "product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." In a blog post written by Alex Stamos, the defense's expert witness said, "I know a criminal hack when I see [one], and Aaron's downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail." Lawrence Lessig, a close friend of Aaron's, alleged prosecutorial misconduct, among other things, saying "Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the 'I'm right so I'm right to nuke you' ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame. One word, and endless tears."
||Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We're grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
—Family and partner of Aaron Swartz
Aaron and Wikimedia
Losing Aaron moved many Wikimedians on a deeply personal level. Aaron edited the English Wikipedia under the username Aaronsw, with more than 5,500 edits in ten years in a surprisingly wide range of topics, from biographies of living people to US legal cases and proposed legislation. He ran for the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees in 2006. This was just the time he had a significant effect on the way the community saw itself, in large part due to his blog post "Who Writes Wikipedia", that was translated into Japanese, Spanish, German, and French. The piece, which was part of a six-part series, was described last week by journalist Anne Sewell as a "landmark analysis of Wikipedia."
Part of "Who Writes Wikipedia" concerned a frequent talking point in Jimmy Wales' public addresses that Wikipedia operated on an "80–20 rule", where 80% of the writing, curating, and caretaking was being done by just 20% of the users. Aaron pointed out that by using edit counts Wales had discovered that the ratio was in fact worse than this—that more than 50% of all edits were made by 0.7% of users, and top 2% of users performed 73% of all edits. According to Wales, the remaining edits were done by minor contributors, the random people who came along to fix a typo or address a minor factual error.
Aaron questioned this premise, saying: "Wales presents these claims as comforting. Don't worry, he tells the world, Wikipedia isn't as shocking as you think. In fact, it's just like any other project: a small group of colleagues working together toward a common goal. But if you think about it, Wales's view of things is actually much more shocking: around a thousand people wrote the world's largest encyclopedia in four years for free? Could this really be true?"
Aaron went on to show that the direct opposite was true: that the 'core' group of Wikipedians—those who made the most edits to the site overall—actually added the least amount of content to the page. Aaron revealed that the problem lay in the methodology: the number of letters added, versus the quantity of edits.
Aaron's keenest insight into Wikipedia came near the end of his blog post:
If Wikipedia is written by occasional contributors, then growing it requires making it easier and more rewarding to contribute occasionally. Instead of trying to squeeze more work out of those who spend their life on Wikipedia, we need to broaden the base of those who contribute just a little bit.
Among several tributes from Wikimedians, Erik Moller, the Deputy Director of the WMF, wrote a Wikimedia Blog post, calling him an "extraordinary individual ... [and] beautiful person," and in an email to wikimedia-l said that Aaron was "an intense, passionate and focused intellectual who dedicated his life to changing the world for the better—and he did. It's a shocking loss and deeply sad that he left us so early, that he saw no other way."
Samuel Klein, a Wikipedian and WMF trustee, wrote a tribute on his blog. The Wikipedian, a blog run by William Beutler for non-Wikipedians, looked at Aaron's contributions to the Wikimedia movement, and other Wikipedians wrote their forms of remembrance on his Wikipedia user talk page.
As Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web and an acquaintance of Aaron's, tweeted: "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."
Aaron H. Swartz known as AaronSw on Wikipedia
Departed January 11, 2013
"I just can't believe someone so brilliant is gone so soon." /ƒETCHCOMMS/
This is an irreconcilable loss for humanity! We were fortunate to share his association, and as stewards, responsible to adopt his endeavors into our care, and conservancy. RIP (condolences)