All About Aaron Swartz (RIP)

Aaron Swartz’s twitter handle reads – “Applied sociologist”, along with his website and place as New York, where he doesn’t stay anymore. Who was Aaron Swartz? I call him ‘The Information Liberator”- died last week.

All about Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

He was my age, and he did so much before leaving! Swartz was a member of the RSS-DEV Working Group that co-authored the “RSS 1.0” specification of RSS, built the website framework and created the architecture for the Open Library.

In 2010 he joined the Harvard University Center for Ethics. He founded the online group Demand Progress (known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act) and later worked with U.S. and international activist groups Rootstrikers, and Avaaz. He also worked as a contributing editor to The Baffler.

On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by federal authorities in connection with systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR.


In November 2010 he plugged his computer directly into the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His aim was to download as many pages as possible from an archive of academic journals called JSTOR, which was available by paid subscription only to libraries and institutions. Legally wrong, however in some people’s terms – morally wrong as well, but the knowledge contained in it had to be made available, free, to everyone.

He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system. He just ran a script, called, which liberated 4.8m articles at a dangerous speed.

Library of Congress

In 2006 he got hold of the book cataloguing data kept by the Library of Congress, usually steeply charged for, and posted them free in the Open Library. In 2009 he wormed his way into a free-access trial of the PACER system, which contains all electronic federal court records, in certain public libraries; he downloaded 19.9m pages of it, then uploaded them to the cloud, before anyone could stop him. Again, it was easy: using a small, elegant language called perl, the documents fell into his hands.

The Information Liberator

He seemed to have been doing this for ever, writing programs to liberate information. At 12 or 13—a plump, bookish boy with a computer-company executive for a father and a very early Mac in the den—he set up, a sort of Wikipedia before the fact, which was going to contain all the world’s knowledge on one website. A mere year or so later he was working with Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, to launch the Semantic Web to improve data-sharing, and developing RSS 1.0 to distribute videos and news stories. He helped set up Creative Commons, too, which made copyright licensing simpler

All this could have made him a fortune, but he had no interest in that. He wanted a world that was better, freer and more progressive. He dropped out of high school, then out of Stanford, educating himself instead by reading prodigious numbers of books, mostly philosophy.


In 2005 when he was developing Reddit, now the web’s most popular bulletin board, lot of money came his way when it was sold to Condé Nast in 2006, but relocation to an office made him miserable. Google offered him jobs, but he turned them down as unexciting.

Political campaigning became his passion. He wanted to see everything available online, free, with nothing held back by elites or big money, and nothing censored. Information was power, as he proclaimed in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008, and war was needed “by stealth”, “in the dark”, “underground”, for the freedom to connect. In 2011 there was no fiercer voice against the Stop Online Piracy Act, and in 2012 no one prouder to proclaim it dead.

Aaron’s Court Trial

The JSTOR business, however, got him into deep trouble. When he went back to the cupboard for his laptop, police arrested him. He was charged on 13 counts, including wire fraud and theft of information, and was to go on trial in the spring, facing up to 35 years of jail. The charges, brought by a federal prosecutor, were hugely disproportionate to what he had done; MIT and JSTOR had both settled with him, and JSTOR, as if chastened by him, had even opened some of its public-domain archive. But theft was theft, said the prosecution.

Suicide OR Killed by the government?

At the funeral of Aaron Swartz, his father had a blunt message. Aaron — who committed suicide last week while being prosecuted for hacking — “was killed by the government,” he declared.

Did federal prosecutors go too far in pursuing Swartz on serious felony charges, and are they in part responsible for his death?

Demand justice for him. All I know is, he is one of the major contributor to the world wide web as I know it today! RIP

Satyam is a Consultant with Infosys Ltd. and editor / founder of When he is not talking about Digital Marketing or dreaming of CRM strategies, he can be found on a treadmill. He enjoys travelling, reading and listening to music! Catch up with him on twitter at @xatyam