Future Tense

Will Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Make the Open-Access Movement Mainstream?

Aaron Swartz in 2009

Photograph by Nick Gray via Wikimedia Commons.

The news that Internet folk hero Aaron Swartz tragically ended his own life shook the Web this weekend, bringing sorrow to online activist circles—but also signaling a hardening of resolve among those who worked alongside him.

At 14, Swartz co-authored the RSS 1.0 specifications. He went to become a co-founder of activist organizations Demand Progress and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee as well as an early Reddit co-owner and a Harvard University Center for Ethics fellow. He was involved somehow in almost every digital rights issue, but had a particular knack for freedom of expression, open government, and open access and freedom of information activism.

This video of Swartz at the Freedom to Connect conference last summer shows him at his best, describing his victory over online copyright enforcement proposals:

But his activism also landed him in legal trouble: Most recently, he faced up to 35 years in prison for allegedly downloading 4.8 million documents from the academic database JSTOR while signed in as a guest to the MIT network. (This wasn’t his first run in with the law: He was investigated in 2009 for downloading 20 percent of the PACER database via a trial program allowing free access through some libraries. The FBI claimed it was the equivalent of stealing $1.5 million worth of documents—all public records—but dropped the investigation without charges.) 

Many felt the mass download was an act of digital civil disobedience. Journal and database subscription prices have increased at alarming rates as library budgets have shrunk. The largest of the for-profit publishers, Elsevier, made $1.1 billion in profits in 2011 with a profit margin of about 35 percent. Thus, the open access movement, which advocates policies designed to provide unrestricted access to peer-reviewed research online, like journals voluntarily making their content available online or universities mandating research published by members of their community be posted in an online repository, free for public use.

JSTOR made its peace with Swartz in June 2011 and just last week expanded its online Register & Read program, making more information available for free. But prosecutors pushed on for decades of prison time for the 26-year-old activist—adding nine new felony charges in September and scheduling his trial for April 1. Now he is dead, but the ideas he cared about aren’t. 

There was an awareness in the mourning this weekend that suicide is often the result of many factors, and that Swartz’s death was both a tragedy for the tech community and a loss for the people closest to him. His former partner Quinn Norton’s words were heartbreaking. But there were also calls to action: Swartz friend, activist, and Harvard Ethics Center Director Lawrence Lessig; the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and his family called for action and blamed prosecutors, the latter releasing a statement alleging “[d]ecisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”  

And that’s how you see the rise of a digital martyr. In death, Swartz can be a vehicle to transform the pain felt by the community into the kind of change he would have wanted. It’s unfair to diminish a life into a figurehead for an issue, and it is likely that other factors—not just the court case—contributed to Swartz’s decision to end his life. But there might be no better way to honor Aaron Swartz’s memory than continuing the dialogue about the future of freedom of access to information.