One of the most prominent Internet activists, Aaron Swartz, took his life on last Friday in his New York apartment. He was 26. His death has sent shockwaves through the online community, and for good reason: Swartz was a talented, passionate youth who fought for an open Internet. He was also depressed, and under investigation by a U.S. prosecutor for wire fraud involving the theft of 4.8 million JSTOR academic articles — carrying with it a possible 35 year sentence. His death, as Wired‘s Kevin Poulsen writes, has robbed the world of technological solutions and causes that most can’t even imagine in a lifetime.
Poulsen may be right, but Swartz’s legacy isn’t over. Here are five reasons why Aaron Swartz’s death matters:
1) Lost talent:
There’s no getting around that Swartz had talent. At the age of 14, he helped to standardize Really Simple Syndication — affectionately known now as RSS. He also created Infogami, which was later rolled into Reddit. Swartz also helped to bring activism online in 2010 with Demand Progress, which helped to kill the Stop Online Piracy Act among other things. The vacum that Swartz left will be hard, if not impossible, for anyone to fill.
2) It may have harmed Internet activism:
Aaron was incredibly involved in politics. His death may have deprived the online community of a watchdog who could both organize and articulate why Internet users ought to stand against oppressively restrictive bills.
3) It may have inspired more Internet activism:
But Swartz’s death may have inspired many to take up a new cause. He united a good deal of the online community around his passions: an open and free Internet. His death has done that even more so, especially when it comes to accessing information. Hackers have already defaced MIT’s website, and debates have been renewed over copyright law across the web.
4) It has spurred academics to give free access to their articles:
Aaron’s death centered around his alleged theft of 4.8 million academic articles. Now, professors and academics from around the world are giving their articles away for free in the hopes promoting free access to information. You can see them here.
5) The prosecutor who pushed the case is now in the spotlight, and so are the punishments he would’ve implemented:
Swartz faced 13 felonies — even as a part of a plea bargin — for his alleged theft of JSTOR articles. The time he could have spent in jail for his theft ranged from 35 years to 50 years alongside fines of $1 million to $4 million. The severity of his potential punishments has spurred many to ask, “does the punishment fit the crime?” Many are saying “no.”
A lot of rage has been directed at the organizations involved in the case against Swartz as well. Even though MIT — the campus where Swartz accessed the stolen JSTOR articles — eventually dropped its case against the young activist, it has been railed against by the online community over MIT’s decision to not push against jail-time for Swartz.
MIT said it’ll investigate — from the time Swartz downloaded the JSTOR articles through his criminal investigation — its involvement in the case against Swartz soon after he died. Some are skeptical of its sincerity, but Swartz’s death will likely inspire a more critical look at how academia at-large cooperates with prosecutors in cybercrimes.
There may be more points to make about Swartz’s death, but the world, as Poulsen notes, is poorer place regardless.