Activists Hold International ‘Hackathon’ in Memory of Aaron Swartz
Activists, hacktivists, developers, programmers and other concerned Internet users held an international hackathon in nearly a dozen cities around the world on Saturday in memory of Aaron Swartz on what would have been his 28th birthday.
Swartz, the young genius who, alone or in various collaborations, gifted the world such Internet staples as Creative Commons, Reddit, RSS and the technology that became SecureDrop, lived a life fully dedicated to making information available to everyone. He founded the progressive online group Demand Progress, and was instrumental in defeating the proposed Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA).
Swartz’s staunch commitment to making the world a better place through improving access to online information made him a hero to many. But it also made him a marked man, and after he downloaded a treasure trove of academic articles from the JSTOR digital library, federal prosecutors charged him with wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. This raised eyebrows and ire among observers of all political stripes, many of whom decried what they called prosecutorial overreach and the Obama administration for attempting to scare Internet activists into silence.
Facing 13 counts, a $1 million fine and 35 years in federal prison, Swartz, who was convinced he had done nothing that warranted such aggressive prosecution, courageously rejected a plea bargain that would have resulted in a six-month federal prison term and a felony record. But the overly zealous government prosecution took a heavy toll on Swartz, and at the age of 26 he hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013.
“One thing Aaron was not is a criminal,” insisted Daniel Purcell, one of Swartz’s attorneys at a two-day Aaron Swartz Day hackathon hosted by The Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based digital library offering free universal access to books, movies, music and hundreds of millions of archived web pages. A criminal, said Purcell, “breaks into computer systems for nefarious purposes.”
In his “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” which was later used against him by federal prosecutors, Swartz eloquently explains his ethos:
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier. There are those struggling to change this…
This action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerrilla Open Access.
Certainly no “nefarious purposes” here.
“Aaron believed knowledge was public property and he resented people and entities who monopolized knowledge for monetary gain,” said Purcell. “He wanted to teach the system a lesson.”
That was his undoing. What Swartz stood for represented a serious threat to a system in which the people responsible the global financial crisis regularly attend meetings in the White House and are rewarded with multi-million dollar bonuses while those who expose financial crimes, war crimes and government crimes are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Swartz would join the likes of Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou and others, targeted by an administration whose war on whistleblowers is meant to have a chilling effect on free speech and legitimate dissent.
Instead, Swartz has become something of a martyr. Not in some pathetic, quixotic way. His life, his work and his untimely demise have inspired a whole generation of ‘hacktivists’ and other open Internet advocates who are hard at work fighting battles in defense of net neutrality and against corporatization of the Internet, government surveillance and other pressing problems.
“Since there are projects like SecureDrop (an open-source whistleblower submission system managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation) going strong, and policy movements aimed at protecting innovative students on college campuses, and more updates on the ongoing fight to have Aaron’s government documents released to the public, and so many people willing to do amazing projects in his honor, I decided to just try to include everything I could, and see how large it became,” Lisa Rein, co-founder of Creative Commons and host of The Internet Archive hackathon, told the Daily Dot.
“Aaron doesn’t deserve to go down in history as some malicious hacker out to steal and make money from his loot somehow,” added Rein.
Purcell agreed, telling the audience of several dozen than what Swartz did was “not hacking.”
“It was walking through a door that was left open for anyone to walk through,” the attorney insisted, calling Swartz’s alleged ‘crime’ “a harmless effort to point out a problem.”
Director Brian Knappenberger was on hand at the San Francisco event for a screening of his critically-acclaimed documentary feature, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. A panel discussion and audience Q&A followed. Many attendees had personal connections to Swartz. There was much talk of how activists could honor his memory.
“One thing we can do in memory of Aaron is to upload as much as possible,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder and former Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who was deeply impressed upon meeting a 10-year-old Swartz, already a prodigy, in 1996.
“They went after a brilliant visionary with the full force of the law, but what Aaron did wasn’t illegal. Now people are always going to question those who take public information and profit from it,” said Vahid Razavi, founder of the advocacy group Ethics in Tech.
Razavi said part of Swartz’s legacy is “people fighting back against this by freely sharing information.”
“The Internet Archive is the perfect example of this,” he added.
Aaron Swartz Day hackathons were held in: Austin, Berlin, Boston, Buenos Aires, Houston, Kathmandu, Los Angeles, Magdeburg, New York, Oakland, Oxford and San Francisco.
Tagged Aaron Swartz, Aaron Swartz Day, Aaron Swartz hackathon, Aaron Swartz legacy, Aaron Swartz suicide, Brian Knappenberger, corporate greed, Daniel Purcell, Demand Progress, Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, John Perry Barlow, JSTOR, Lisa Rein, open Internet, SecureDrop, The Internet Archive, The Internet's Own Boy, Vahid Razavi