If you look at Aaron Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, you’ll find an old photo where a painfully young Swartz (not more than 22 or 23) is sitting nonchalantly all by himself, up in a tree. The champion of free public domain information that he was, Swartz’s manifesto has such lines as the one quoted by the hacker group Anonymous, when they defaced MIT’s website, paying tribute to the late Swartz. “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.” How could this twenty-something make a whole bunch of Grown-Up People so mad that they wanted him in the slammer for thirty-five years? In India you could bludgeon someone to death with a hunting knife and plausibly get away with less than that. And if there are a hundred people around you doing more or less the same thing, you might just get really lucky.
His true legacy will be defined by the next generation of Internet prodigies, outliers who will shame governments, start revolutions and transform all of our lives forever in manic scary wonderful ways.
People are blaming the ‘academic mafia’ for their part in pushing the 26-year-old Swartz across the edge. But JSTOR (short for ‘Journal Storage’) had earlier expressed their unwillingness to press charges against Swartz, once he returned all of their files, which he had downloaded off the MIT network. So the U.S. Government decided to do it for them, prosecutorial war paint in place. (U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said, in a now-infamous statement, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”) It is indeed massively tempting to pin the blame on the academic community. The recent lawsuit against a photocopy shop on the premises of the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) was another example of just how awry things can become in this world. A group of academic publishers ganged up on a man whose only crime was to run a Xerox shop; even strong-arming the university itself lest they stuck up for the accused.
Therefore, the #PDF tribute to Swartz, which gathered pace less than 24 hours after his death, was a timely and commendable gesture, which went a long way in ensuring that not all researchers and Professors were tarred with the same brush. As the tributes began to pile up on Twitter and yes, Swartz’s own beloved Reddit, the #PDF tribute had managed to garner all of the files which he had been accused of stealing. The little guy had a voice again, and in an all-but-inconsequential way, the world made sense. Never mind the fact that Aaron Swartz changed the Internet fundamentally while still a teenager. Never mind that not one of his many free content quests was motivated by personal or financial gain. His true legacy will be defined by the next generation of Internet prodigies, outliers who will shame governments, start revolutions and transform all of our lives forever in manic scary wonderful ways. As Anonymous posted on the MIT website, “You were the best of us; may you yet bring out the best in us.”