Professionalism/Aaron Swartz and Information Freedom

Swartz's Early LifeEdit

Aaron Hillel Swartz was born in 1986 in Chicago, Illinois. Aaron's father Robert Swartz introduced Aaron to computer programming at a very early age. It was quickly apparent that Aaron was a gifted and passionate programmer. Throughout his life, he fought for information freedom using his programming expertise.

Swartz won an ArsDigita Prize at 13 years old. This award is given to youths who design "useful, educational, and collaborative" websites. Just two years later, he attended the launch party for Creative commons], founded by Lawrence Lessig[1]. An informational activist himself, Lessig would prove to be an important influence in Aaron's life. Swartz and Lessig would meet again at Stanford University where Swartz was a student and Lessig, a Stanford Law Professor[2].

Swartz's other endeavors in programming and informational freedom include founding Infogami and co-founding Reddit, Jottit, and Demand Progress, an activist group in favor of public informational freedom.

Information FreedomEdit

Information Freedom is the right to freedom of expression with regards to the Internet and information technology. Major players in the fight for information freedom include Demand Progress [3], the internet activist organization founded by Aaron Swartz that promotes civil liberties and government reform by opposing internet censorship; Creative Commons [4], the organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share; and the US Government.

Legislating Information FreedomEdit

The 1966 Freedom of Information Act allows full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information from the federal government. This is used primarily by news sources for investigative journalism. However, the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, is a bill currently in the House of Representatives that outlines the government’s ability to regulate online transmission of information. The goal of the legislation is to combat the theft of US property by strengthening copyright protection online. Opponents argue that SOPA threatens free speech and innovation, enabling the government to block access to entire internet domains due to infringing content posted on a single webpage. They argue that requiring search engines to delete domain names violates the First Amendment and could spark unprecedented internet censorship.


Wikipedia is a free, online encyclopedia launched in 2001. Anyone can edit article content, with about 100,000 active contributors. Over the past 12 years, Wikipedia has become the sixth largest website globally, and has established itself as a forum for collaboration and free informational access. While Wikipedia was believed untrustworthy, recent studies show that it is at least as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittannica. Wikipedia, along with Reddit, joined the fight for information freedom by placing a blackout on its site in protest of the SOPA legislation [5]. Aaron Swartz supported Wikipedia by writing an article about its true contributors [6]. He discovered that contrary to popular belief, Wikipedia's main content was added to by thousands of people rather than a core community of editors.

Creative CommonsEdit

A Creative Commons license builds on a copyright by allowing the owner to specify their own terms for others to use or build upon their work [7]. Critics argue that the complexity of a Creative Commons license and the six different varieties of CC licenses confuse the system and don’t provide any additional protection over ,and may even erode, the copyright system.


The basic idea of online digital libraries is to consolidate many expensive subscriptions into one location and blanket subscription that provides more affordable and widespread access to research articles. A criticism of digital libraries is that revenue generated goes toward the individual academic journal instead of individual researchers or authors. The libraries also limit access of information to only those who subscribe – namely universities, independent research centers, and some public libraries for walk-in access. JSTOR has worked to combat this through the “Early Journal Content” program, introduced in 2011, that releases about 6% of JSTOR’s total content to the public [8]. Aaron Swartz, who downloaded millions of articles with the intent to release them to the public, believed that more of JSTOR’s proprietary publications should have been publicly accessible.


In 1969, Daniel Ellsberg released the highly-classified Pentagon Papers to the New York Times. Ellsberg managed to escape with no legal repercussions and was lauded as a hero for exposing the follies of America’s actions in Vietnam.

In 2006, Australian activist Julian Assange founded Wikileaks, a website designed to promote the open sharing of secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources; things played out a little differently for him than they did for Ellsberg. Wikileaks attempts to accomplish this by combining “high-end security technologies with journalism and ethical principles.” In order to protect the identity of submitters, Wikileaks provides an anonymous online dropbox. Each document received is vetted to ensure its veracity before it is released, and Wikileaks has a policy of not releasing information that could harm innocent people.

Wikileaks has released stories from the serious - permissibility of torture at Guantanamo Bay, insider trading at J.P. Morgan[9] - to the not-so-serious - the secret rituals of Alpha Sigma Tau Sorority and the Mormon Church Handbook of Instruction[10]. The latter two have some wondering - is the original mission of the site, to expose corruption and spread important, oft-censored news to the people, intact? Or has the site become a venue for diplomatic gossip and petty secret-sharing?

Critics include political activist Steven Aftergood, who claims that WIkileaks does not respect the rule of law or honor the rights of individuals[11], and Reporters Without Borders, who say that indiscriminately publishing classified reports reflects a real problem of methodology and credibility[12]. These are both referring to a leak of over 90,000 documents that fail to redact the names of Afghan citizens working as American informants; potentially in conflict with Wikileaks’ mission of not endangering innocent individuals.

Swartz's Legal TroublesEdit

In 2008, Swartz downloaded 2.7 million federal documents from PACER, an online database maintained by the US Courts System. Though he did publicly release these documents, Swartz was not charged as the files were already free and publicly available[13].

Two years later, Swartz downloaded a similarly large volume of files from JSTOR. As a research fellow at Harvard University's Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, Swartz had full access to JSTOR and its contents. Rather than download the files at Harvard University, Swartz downloaded millions of files on a laptop hidden for several weeks in a closet on MIT's campus. In early January 2011, Swartz was arrested for breaking and entering by MIT police[14]. He was later charged with larceny of electronic data and unauthorized access to a computer network. Later that year, all charges were dropped by the State of Massachusetts[15].

In July 2011, Swartz was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Swartz pled not guilty to all charges and was subsequently released on bail. Of the charges, David Segal of Demand Progress said "[this is} like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library. It’s even more strange because JSTOR has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.[16]" On September 12, 2012 prosecutors filed 9 more felony counts against Swartz[17]. If convicted, he faced up to 35 years in prison and a one million dollar fine[18].

On January 9th, 2013, federal prosecutors, aware that Swartz was a suicide risk, told him that if he would not face trial if he pleaded guilty to 13 charges and spent 6 months in prison[19]. Two days later, Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn, New York apartment. He had hanged himself[20]; according to popular belief this was a direct result of the legal pressures placed on Swartz by the State of Massachusetts[21].

Swartz as a ProfessionalEdit

Swartz dedicated much of his short personal and professional life to fighting for free access to information. Between working with Creative Commons, analysis of the use of Wikipedia and running for the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Directors, downloading several million articles from JSTOR (no matter his unknowable intent), and potentially contributing to Wikileaks[22], it is apparent that Swartz worked tirelessly to fight monopolies on information.

Much of Swartz's conception of intellectual property and ownership was in line with the writings of Thomas Jefferson, which Swartz discussed in his blog[23]. While Swartz's interpretation of Jefferson's writing is not uncontroversial, his beliefs were grounded in precedent and philosophical thought.

Do Swartz's legal issues taint his potential as a "definition-four" professional? Or do his dedication and willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice redeem him?