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Aaron Swartz was an internet activist, computer programmer and political organizer known for his involvement in several web projects including the Rich Site Summary (RSS) 1.0 and Infogami, which later became part of Reddit, as well as in online activism through his political action group Demand Progress.
Aaron Swartz began building web sites and applications at age thirteen, starting with a website called the Info Network, an unintentional clone of Wikipedia for which he won the 2000 ArsDigita Prize. Following this achievement, Swartz built a program that would collect news from different web pages and put them into one place for the reader. He used this work to join the RSS-DEV Working Group and collaborated on the release of RSS 1.0 in December 2000.
Political activist Lawrence Lessig with Swartz, age 14
After attending Stanford University in California for a year, Swartz received funding through Y Combinator, a program dedicated to help entrepreneurs build fledgling companies, and launched the startup Infogami in the summer of 2005. Though Infogami was later used as the basis for the ebook database Open Library, at the time, Swartz was unsure of where to go with the startup. At the suggestion of Y Combinator organizers, Swartz merged Infogami with Reddit in November 2005 and stayed with the company through its buyout from Conde Nast, after which he moved to San Francisco and worked in the offices of Wired magazine, where he became unhappy and suicidal before he was asked to resign in January 2007.
Swartz, shown far left, working at Y Combinator
Swartz was also closely involved with Wikipedia as a voluntary editor and ran for the Wikimedia Foundation’s Board of Directors in 2006. That same year, he wrote Who Writes Wikipedia, an analysis of Wikipedia’s community research process and the distribution of contributions across the editors’ community. In the report, Swartz concluded that the majority of content comes from tens of thousands of casual “outsider” contributors, while a core group of 500 to 1000 regular editors tend to focus on formatting aspects. His analysis contradicted Jimmy Wales’ theory that the core group of editors are the primary research contributors, which resulted from counting the total number of characters added by an editor, as opposed to the total number of edits that were taken into consideration by Wales.
In 2010, Swartz launched Demand Progress, a tax-exempt organization dedicated to launching petitions to protect the freedom of the Internet. The organization has led numerous campaigns including protecting whistleblowers, stopping politicians from trying to shut down WikiLeaks and fighting against the the Protect IP Act. Following the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), Swartz gave the following keynote in May 2012.
In August 2009, Swartz learned he was wanted by the FBI for allegedly downloading 20% of the records on the U.S. Government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database in 2008. At the time, PACER was charging 8 cents per page to access documents that are not subject to copyright and are in the public domain. The FBI found that he had downloaded more than 18 million pages of documents worth $1.5 million dollars while it was in a free trial at local libraries, leading to them doing a thorough background check on Swartz in addition to staking out his home. The documents were later donated to Public.Resource.Org, an organization spearheaded by Carl Malamud to keep free information free. After Swartz declined to speak with the FBI about the situation in April 2009, the investigation ceased.
On July 19th, 2011, Swartz was indicted in a Boston court alleging that he stole more than 4 million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and journal archive JSTOR. Prosecutors claimed that the files were downloaded with the intent of being made available for free on P2P sharing sites. Swartz pleaded not guilty and JSTOR stated that they would not be pursuing the legal matter. The act was likened to borrowing too many books from the library with a sentence that was more severe than those reserved for people who commit manslaughter, rob a bank, sell child pornography or help al-Qaeda develop a nuclear weapon.
Despite JSTOR dropping the lawsuit, Carmen Ortiz, the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, continued with the claim. Equating the data theft with that of monetary theft, she originally pursued four charges of felonious misconduct against Swartz, before raising the count to 13. Defending US federal cases costs millions, and likely placed more pressure on Swartz during the last few months of his life. Following his suicide, public outrage sparked a petition on We the People, a government run petition website, calling for the removal of Ortiz from her office. Within three days, the necessary 25,000 signatures had been gathered, and now require an official White House response.
FBI File Released
On February 19th, 2013, American political blogger Daniel Wright reported that he had received 21 pages out of a 23 page file on Aaron Swartz that was declassified by the F.B.I. after his death in January. According to the official report, federal agents collected information about Swartz through various public channels, including LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook, as well as his personal blog posts and op-ed columns as part of their PACER investigation. The document also revealed that Swartz himself knew that he was being investigated and unsuccessfully requested the disclosure of his files under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). On the following day, the release of the FBI report was subsequently picked up by several news outlets and tech blogs including The Guardian, Daily Beast and BoingBoing.
Additional FBI Files and Surveillance Video
On December 4th, 2013, the tech news website Wired revealed that they had retrieved a treasure trove of new documents on the Swartz case – including the surveillance video that lead to his arrest – following a successful Freedom of Information request.
But photos from the putative crime scene, also released by the Secret Service, add context missing from the video: a concrete support in the network closet is crammed with a jumble of Sharpie graffiti dating back to the early 1980s -- earlier generations of hackers at the institution that invented hacking, going places they shouldn’t go, doing things they shouldn’t do, leaving their mark at the very spot where, on January 4, 2011, MIT lost its tolerance for such behavior.
On January 16th, 2013, California’s Democratic representative Zoe Lofgren submitted a proposal (embedded below) to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in Aaron’s name via /r/technology subreddit. Lofgren’s proposal received 1206 upvotes and 959 points overall. In a comment, Lofgren explained that the proposed amendment to the wire fraud statute would make violating a website’s terms of service a non-criminal activity. The same day, various news articles about the proposal appeared on Mashable, the Atlantic, Ars Technica and Forbes.
On January 17th, the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted its own revision of the CFAA to their website and /r/technology, further expanding on Lofgren’s initial work. Over the next several days, the Los Angeles Times and the Berkman Center’s Citizen Media Law Project investigated the proposed changes to the CFAA, though both seemed to be unsure whether or not the provisions made in Aaron’s Law would have protected Swartz. Despite this, by January 23rd, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte had acknowledged the amendment proposal to the CFAA and stated that his committee “certainly is going to look at that very carefully.” 
Operation Last Resort
On January 25th, 2013, the Twitter feed @OpLastResort was launched, which began tweeting links to numerous YouTube videos commenting on the backlash against the U.S. Justice Department’s treatment of Aaron Swartz prior to his death. On the following day, the website of the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was defaced with a video message lamenting “the erosion of due process, the dilution of constitutional rights, the usurpation of the rightful authority of courts by the ‘discretion’ of prosecutors." (shown below)
In the video, Anonymous claimed responsibility for the cyberattack against the agency within the Justice Department in retaliation for the prosecution that the group say ultimately led him to commit suicide and announced the launch of Operation Last Resort, which threatened to release “warhead” files that contain sensitive information on individuals in the Justice Department. Within 48 hours, the video received over 1 million views, 5,000 up votes and 3,600 comments and the event was covered by Gawker and The Verge among others.
On January 27th, @OpLastResort tweeted the well-known Konami cheat code with an instruction to input the code on the USSC website. According to Slate, typing in the code initiated a flash-based game with the alert message “”/memes/pew-pew" target="blank">PEW PEW PEW PEW PEW! End Prosecutorial Overreach!" in which the visitor could control a missile-enabled Nyan Cat and shoot chunks of text off the government page. Later that day, the website of the U.S. Probation Department for the Eastern District of Michigan was taken down by another attack in a similar fashion, presumably carried out by the members of Anonymous.
— OpLastResort (@OpLastResort) January 27, 2013
On January 13th, 2014, two days after the anniversary of Swartz’ death and five days prior to the anniversary of the SOPA online blackout protests, a coalition of websites, Internet companies and activist groups, including Mozilla, Reddit, BoingBoing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), announced a plan to mobilize a massive online protest against the NSA’s cyber-surveillance on February 11th.
WHAT WE’LL DO ON FEBRUARY 11th:
If you’re in the US: Thousands of websites will host banners urging people to call/email Congress. Plans may change, but we intend to ask legislators to oppose the FISA Improvements Act, support the USA Freedom Act, and enact protections for non-Americans.
If you’re not in the US: Visitors will be asked to urge appropriate targets to institute privacy protections.
Dubbed “The Day We Fight Back,” the announcement of the event coincided with the declaration of the “Copyright Week,” a week-long campaign aimed at better informing the public about the copyright laws and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. According to the press release, each day of the week is centered around a different principle deemed crucial to meaningful copyright reform, such as transparency, a robust public domain, open access, ownership, fair use rights and an open Internet. That same day, several tech news sites published articles about the protest event, including BoingBoing, The Daily Dot and Tech Dirt.
Swartz stayed in public schooling up until his freshman year of highschool, when he started homeschooling and a mixed set of college courses. After a few years of community college courses, he went on to study at Stanford University in California. He left after only a year, dissatisfied with the atmosphere the school provided. Shortly after, he moved to Cambridge and began to work on the predecessor of Reddit. Interests spanning over politics, media, public opinion, and more led him to become involved in responding and writing a large number of online opinion blogs. Those same interests further pushed him to study at the Harvard Ethics Center as a Harvard Fellow.
On January 11th, 2013, two days after he was offered a settlement requiring him to plead guilty in the JSTOR case, Aaron Swartz committed suicide at his home in Brooklyn, New York. His family launched a memorial site and later released a statement citing pressure from attorneys combined with a lack of support from MIT as factors in his death. There was an outpouring of grief online from tech bloggers, JSTOR, and internet researchers, who began making their works available for free online with the hashtag #pdftribute in his honor. Additionally, members of Anonymous hacked into MIT websites, leaving messages in Swartz’s memory. There were more than 200,000 tweets made about him in the two days following his death. On January 14th, MIT announced an investigation into the school’s involvement with Swartz’ death and the government formally dropped all charges against him.
Ars Technica – Government formally drops charges against Aaron Swartz
Daily Caller – Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz commits suicide at age 26
Ars Technica – Family blames US attorneys for death of Aaron Swartz
Washington Post – Anonymous hacks MIT sites to post Aaron Swartz tribute, call to arms
Electronic Frontier Foundation – EFF’s Initial Improvements to Aaron’s Law for Computer Crime Reform
Berkman Center Citizen Media Law Project – The Impact of “Aaron’s Law” on Aaron Swartz’s Case