Birthday: November 8, 1986
Died At Age: 26
Sun Sign: Scorpio
Also Known As: Aaron Hillel Swartz
Born in: Chicago
Famous as: Computer Programmer
Spouse/Ex-: Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman
father: Robert Swartz
mother: Susan Swartz
Died on: January 11, 2013
place of death: Brooklyn
City: Chicago, Illinois
U.S. State: Illinois
Cause of Death: Suicide
Founder/Co-Founder: Progressive Change Campaign Committee
education: Stanford University
awards: EFF Pioneer Award
James Madison Award
Internet Hall of Fame
Who was Aaron Swartz?
Aaron Hillel Swartz was an American computer programmer and entrepreneur who was one of the developers of several ground-breaking projects, including the web feed format RSS, the publishing format Markdown, and the website framework web.py, as well as one of the co-founders of the social news site Reddit. Furthermore, he received the title of co-founder of Not A Bug, Inc., after it was formed in 2005. He was also a renowned author, political organiser, and hacktivist, focusing much of his work on civil awareness and effective online activism. Swartz was arrested in 2011 and charged with state breaking-and-entering after he downloaded academic journal articles from JSTOR while using his MIT guest user account. He was charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and was facing a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines and 50 years in prison. Declining the government’s offer of a plea bargain that would have incarcerated him for six months in federal prison, Swartz and his legal team came up with a counteroffer but it was rejected, Two days later, his body was discovered in his Brooklyn apartment, where he had hanged himself. As a proponent of an open, free, and unregulated internet, Swartz has been credited for making the internet what it is today.
Childhood & Early Life
Aaron Swartz was born on November 8, 1986, in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, to Susan and Robert Swartz. He had two brothers, Noah and Benjamin. Both his parents are Jewish. His father is an entrepreneur himself and established Mark Williams Company, a Chicago-based software company.
Swartz was a gifted child and demonstrated his immense potential at an early age. He spent most of his time learning about computers, programming, the internet, and internet culture.
He studied at North Shore Country Day School, a small private school near Chicago, until he was in the 9th grade. In the following year, he left high school and began doing several computer-related courses in the Chicago area.
Swartz earned the ArsDigita Prize at the age of 13. The award used to be given to young people who set up "useful, educational, and collaborative" non-commercial websites. In the following year, he joined the working group that produced RSS 1.0 web syndication specification in December 2000.
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After getting accepted into Stanford University, Swartz sought to work on Y Combinator's very first Summer Founders Program, a start-up called Infogami that would be built as a flexible content management system to design rich and visually interesting websites or a type of wiki for structured data. Swartz collaborated with Infogami co-founder Simon Carstensen over the course of the summer of 2005.
During this period, he started blogging actively. His writings covered a wide range of topics, including his experiences at Stanford, his role in creating Creative Commons, and copyright law.
He decided not to return to Stanford in 2006 and continued his work at Infogami. During his tenure in the company, he created web.py, a web application framework for Python as he had become dissatisfied with other Python programming language-based systems.
In early fall 2005, he joined the founders of Reddit, another nascent Y-Combinator firm, to help them author their Lisp codebase using Python and web.py. Despite Infogami being abandoned after the acquisition of Not a Bug by Condé Nast Publications, the owner of Wired magazine, its software was applied to run the Internet Archive's Open Library project.
In November 2005, Infogami was merged with Reddit, a decision that came after the former failed to secure further funding. That year, Not a Bug was established and it promoted both products. While they started off on equal footing with both projects having trouble, Reddit soon became more popular.
After Wired bought Not a Bug, Swartz had to relocate his entire company to San Francisco and began working at Wired’s headquarters. However, he discovered that office life did not suit him and ultimately resigned from the company.
Swartz got together with Carstensen to establish a new firm named Jottit. This was another attempt by them to make another Python-based markdown driven content management system.
In 2001, Swartz worked for the RDFCore working group at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and wrote the RFC 3870, Application/RDF+XML Media Type Registration. The document contains the description of a new type of media, "RDF/XML", produced to run the Semantic Web.
As one of the major contributors to Markdown, a lightweight markup language with plain text formatting syntax, produced to be easily converted to HTML and similar formats by using a tool of the same name, Swartz was the writer of Markdown’s html2text translator. In 2002, Swartz came up with atx language, which he used to write Markdown’s syntax.
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It was revealed only after his death that Swartz had obtained the Library of Congress's complete bibliographic dataset sometime around 2006. While people generally had to pay fees to access the data, copyright laws did not withhold it within the US as it was a government document. Swartz subsequently put the data up on Open Library, effectively making it available to everyone for free.
It was later approved by the Copyright Office. According to some sources, the file came to the internet archive from Plymouth State University's library system, Scriblio. Despite this, Swartz’s file became the foundation of Open Library.
He collaborated with Virgil Griffith to produce Tor2web, which is an HTTP proxy for Tor-hidden services. It serves as a link between Tor and basic web browsers.
Swartz also worked with Kevin Poulsen and James Dolan to create and implement DeadDrop. Named after the method of espionage tradecraft employed to transfer items or information between two individuals using a secret location, the system offers a way to pass electronic documents to anonymous sources without the possibility of disclosure.
’The New Yorker’ was the first media outlet that introduced the first instance of the software under the name Strongbox. Since then, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has been overseeing the system and it has been renamed once more as SecureDrop.
As an Activist
Aaron Swartz set up Watchdog.net in 2008. The site was created to accumulate and envisage data about politicians. It particularly focused on what were the various sources of funds for various politicians.
In order to educate himself more on effective activism, Swartz co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee in 2009. His first activism event took place in collaboration with the committee. They collected thousands of signatures petitioning for the fulfilment of Senator Ted Kennedy’s last wish by nominating a senator to vote for health care reform.
Swartz helped in the establishment of ‘Demand Progress’ in 2010. It is a political advocacy group that seeks to inform people about civil liberties, government reforms, and several other issues. It also encourages people online to reach out to public officials and support pressure tactics.
Swartz was one of the most prominent leaders of the “prevent passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) campaign.” While the bill was supposed to curtail internet copyright violations, its critics felt that it would have made the government’s job easier to close whatever sites they thought were violating copyrights and would have put an unbearable burden on internet providers. Ultimately, the bill did not get passed.
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In 2008, Swartz made 2.7 million federal court documents stored in the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) freely accessible to the public. The FBI subsequently launched an investigation against him but decided not to press any charges after they realised the documents were already public.
Arrest & Trial
Federal authorities state that in late 2010 and early 2011, Swartz downloaded a significant number of academic journal articles through MIT's computer network. He used JSTOR, a digital repository.
Furthermore, according to the authorities, Swartz used a laptop to connect to a networking switch a controlled-access wiring closet at MIT. A camera placed in the room helped in identifying Swartz and the download was immediately stopped.
Swartz was arrested on the night of January 6, 2011, on the charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. On November 17, 2011, a federal grand jury indicted him on the charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
On November 17, 2011, a Middlesex County Superior Court grand jury indicted him on the state charges of breaking and entering with intent, grand larceny, and unauthorized access to a computer network. However, the state charges were later dropped.
Nine more felony counts were added on September 12, 2012, which meant that Swartz was facing a 50-year sentence and $1 million in fine. He was offered a six-month imprisonment in a low-security prison if he pleaded guilty to 13 federal crimes. Swartz rejected the offer. The federal prosecution drew widespread criticism for its excessiveness.
Swartz was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame posthumously in 2013.
He was posthumously awarded American Library Association's James Madison Award in 2013.
He was the posthumous recipient of the EFF Pioneer Award in 2013.
Aaron Swartz was in a relationship with Australian-American progressive activist Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman until his death. On the evening of January 11, 2013, Stinebrickner-Kauffman discovered his body in his Brooklyn apartment. A spokeswoman for New York's Medical Examiner later told the reporters that Swartz had killed himself by hanging. There was no suicide note
His family and Stinebrickner-Kauffman set up a memorial website where they eulogize him with the following statement, “He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place”.
Following his death, Swartz has been hailed as “an online icon” and his trial as an act of overzealous and selective prosecution. Several documentaries have been made on his life, including the 2014 release, ‘Killswitch’. A biographical film, titled ‘Patriot of the Web’, is set for a late 2018 release on Amazon.
Swartz was a prominent and active editor at the English Wikipedia.