Living in a post-Aaron Swartz world

Even if you didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was previously, by now you’ve certainly read the news of his tragic passing at the age of 26.

Swartz was a young tech wizard who helped create RSS when he was just 14 years old, and he was also the co-founder of Reddit. In addition, Swartz tried to make all information free and accessible to everyone, and this is where he got into trouble.

When Swartz downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an MIT research service, he was facing a major court case that could have sent him to jail for many years, and cost him potential millions in fines.

Swartz had struggles with depression, which could have been a factor in his suicide, and in a statement his family said his death was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” 

Now the Daily Beast reports that Zoe Lofgren, a California Representative, will try to push through “Aaron’s Law,” which she just introduced. The law was announced on Reddit, the site Swartz co-founded, and the goal of Aaron’s Law is to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to try and prevent a tragedy like Swartz’s death from ever happening again.

“There’s no way to reverse the tragedy of Aaron’s death,” Lofgren wrote. “But we can work to prevent a repeat of the abuses of power he experienced.” 

Another article on the Daily Beast was also headlined, “Aaron Swartz’s Death Should Change America’s Absurd Legal System.” The article asked the same thing that Aaron’s Law hopes to make a reality: “What if we took the lesson of overzealous prosecutors and reformed our justice system?” 

As Michael Moynihan writes, Aaron’s death should cause “serious reexamination” of the American justice system, especially considering this was a strong example of “it’s relentlessness and inflexibility…” 

Meanwhile, a report on the Huffington Post claimed that several people at MIT felt the prosecutors were “overreaching” in the case, and one told the Post, “By the time this thing snowballed out of MIT’s hands, it was gone. When the federal government chooses to prosecute, you don’t get to say no.” According to this report, MIT is also going to conduct an investigation of their involvement in the case.

It will take considerable time before we know the full extent of Swartz’s legacy, as well as what will go into action following his death. As Todd Leopold wrote on CNN, “Aaron Swartz helped create the internet…he was a factor in fashioning some of the web’s upper floors. With his contributions to RSS coding and the web application framework, Swartz made some of today’s more expansive internet possible.”

Even more important, Leopold continues, “What Swartz also helped create was a philosophy of the internet, one that remains the subject of great controversy almost 20 years into its life: the libertarian idea that information wants to be free.”