Aaron Swartz – Genius, Child Prodigy, Hacker, Activist died last Saturday and caused a media furore throughout the world. Every big media outlet posted their eulogies, postscripts about him. So, who was he and what was his legacy?


Aaron Swartz first came into limelight when at the age of 14 he helped develop the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) 1.0 specification. The RSS specification is a family of web feed formats which are used to publish works which are frequently updated—such as blogs, news headlines—in a standardized format. The Open Library, which has a lofty aim of publishing every book on earth online was also his work. As was Infogami, which later on merged with Reddit and made him financially independent and free himself to pursue various causes.


Ever since winning the  ArsDigita Prize, a competition for young people who created “useful, educational, and collaborative” non-commercial Web sites he had been associated with Open Source /Open Code movement. After the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), was unleashed by the US government, he formed the group Demand Progress which was responsible for halting the juggernaut in its tracks. But, his activism and interests were not limited to open Source but ranged from health care to public policy.


In September, 2008, he used an automated program to free up nearlytwenty million pages of federal court records from a government-run database. Though this act of his was on a legal borderline, but FBI decided to make a database about him. This however, was not the last such incident for some years later he used his MIT internet access to download  few million scholarly articles from JSTOR. Things became really serious after this, as he was charged by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts with computer fraud and other charges that carried a potential sentence of 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines. JSTOR later on, decided to drop the case, but US Attorney  Carmen M. Ortiz decided to go ahead with the trial, which was expected to begin sometime later this year.

The manner in which he was charged with and the fact that despite JSTOR dropping the case, he was still facing a court date has surfaced stories about his persecution. Swartz’s family in a statement blamed his suicide in part to the unending atmosphere of intimidation and judicial overreach.  


Aaron Swartz’s legacy would always be the Open Source/Open Web/Open Code movement he was a part of. Whatever legal disputes may have surrounded him or the clinical depression he suffered in his final days, his legend as the Champion of Open Web would grow for years to come.

Hats off, Aaron !!


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