Why Aaron Swartz made such an impact on the Internet

10 years after his disappearance, Aaron Swartz has become a figure of online activism. His commitment to freedom still marks the web today.

He is one of those shadowy figures unknown to the general public, but whose influence still resonates today. On January 11, 2023, Aaron Swartz would have turned 36 years old. But, 10 years ago, this young American committed suicide, crushed by the pressure of a court case against him, which would open a month later about his hacktivism in favor of free knowledge.

The sudden disappearance of Aaron Swartz was a shock among Internet users who shared his beliefs, and even beyond. Above all, it brought to light the debate about unrestricted access to scientific knowledge. A debate that is still relevant today, and has since spread to other areas, such as culture.

A Tragic Figure of “Open Access”

It is precisely his fight for “open access” that has brought him very strong legal reprisals. It’s about his commitment that he is considered an “internet martyr”. His main achievement was the sharing of academic papers by hacking into a database from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network.

Aaron Swartz, at the time, wasn’t half done: 4.8 million documents from the digital library JSTOR (Journal Storage) was absorbed, with the aim of benefiting as many people as possible. A strong gesture, but one that had pushed the young man to run afoul of tough American copyright legislation.

Aaron Swartz. // Source: Peretz Partensky

Ten years later, much remains to be done for open access – the proof is with a JSTOR webpagein 2017, which rejected the idea of ​​opening everything without compensation: We don’t believe that just because something is in the public domain, it can always be offered for free. “. But, Even Aaron Swartz’s activism had victories.

This trail of the network activist – he is described as clean child of the internet in a 2014 documentary dedicated to him — probably not the most spectacular for Internet users. It is also through its action, among other things, that we can more easily access scientific information Page — and without having to pay entry tax.

His contribution to networking was actually much greater than that. In any case, he was not just a JSTOR “pirate” in the eyes of his critics, as evidenced by his presence in many projects that are still alive in 2023. If you frequent the Reddit site, for example, it is also thanks . to him. Likewise if you use the free Creative Commons licenses.

Early talent and intuition

It is premature, first, which is surprising. From his early teens, Aaron Swartz was a pioneer and showed remarkable clarity. It was, for example, at the age of 14 that he participated in the development of the 1.0 specification of the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) format, a system that allows you to subscribe to a site’s feeds. Web page to get the latest news.

While RSS feeds have fallen into disuse (they were popular in the 2000s in the blog age), they still exist and allow you to group together all the topics of the sites you visit in your browser. One of the benefits of RSS? There is no need to visit the site to find out if new content has been published: you are notified directly by a small signal.

It is also at the age of 14 that we find it at the genesis of the free Creative Commons licenses – which are the most widely used today. It was around this time that he also met Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer who formed the organization that oversees these copyright infringement contracts. With these licenses, photos and videos can be distributed widely.

Reddit Logo // Source: Brett Jordan / Unsplash
Back in 2005, when Reddit was launched, Aaron Swartz was there. // Source: Brett Jordan / Unsplash

Should we really be surprised? After all, since the age of 12, the young man was winning a prize in computer science for creating a kind of proto-Wikipedia. It was called “Info Network” and it was a collaborative encyclopedia. We are then in 1999. The The Wikipedia we know was launched just two years laterin 2001 (or 2000 if we refer to Nupedia).

At the age of 19, he joined the Reddit adventure when it was just getting started. It’s 2005. Reddit, a site that hasn’t stopped gaining traffic since then, allows build communities around areas of interest and share the news. Internet users comment and rank them, which makes it possible to identify, in principle, the best topics.

The Reddit adventure will only last for a little while. He left a year later when the site took a commercial turn with the acquisition of its parent company by Condé Nast, a media group, selling its stake. By now, his convictions were very pronounced. They will continue to develop in the coming years, especially in the course of US legislative news.

Activism against network abuse

In addition to his technical contributions – he was also a major contributor to the Markdown language and joined the W3C standards body to work on the RDF (Resource Description Framework) standard working group – he has also been seen descending into a more political arena. That said, all of his contributions already had a vision politics digital.

In the field of digital freedoms and respect for fundamental freedoms, he founded the collective Search Progress. He is committed to opposing the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) laws in the United States, which were never approved. They were essentially accused of allowing web censorship in the name of protecting intellectual property.

Demand Progress, which makes it possible to launch petitions, has since engaged in many other topics, from support for whistleblower Edward Snowden (whose revelations will never be known to Aaron Swartz, who died a few months before) until the repeal of the Patriot Act, an American security text born from the ashes of September 11, 2001.

Today, Aaron Swartz is no more. But ten years after his disappearance, the network still bears vivid traces of his activism. Be it Reddit, RSS, the free Creative Commons license, the fight against SOPA and PIPA laws, and the challenges of free access to scientific knowledge. His legacy is still very much alive, ten years later.

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