Why we should remember Aaron Swartz

The programming genius helped solve problems that allowed the Internet to move forward. He later challenged the practice of charging to download case law.

By MSN Money Partner Jan 14, 2013 4:55PM

File photo of Aaron Swartz in August 2007 (© Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)By Brendan Greeley, Bloomberg Businessweek 

Bloomberg Businessweek on MSN Money

The Internet is not so old. Its graybeards live still.

Vint Cerf, author of the Internet Protocol, has been installed as Google's "chief Internet evangelist," a ceremonial title he chose himself.

Tim Berners-Lee, who gave us HTML, has been knighted. He now sits at the head of his own foundation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a guardian of the language he wrote. And languages are the best way to think of these contributions.

The Internet is a voluntary agreement, a group of languages we've all decided to have in common. The Internet Protocol allows computers to talk to each other. You could use a different language, but since the rest of the world already speaks IP, you'd be lonely, speaking only to yourself.

When he was barely a teenager, Aaron Swartz began playing with XML, an Internet language like Sanskrit or classical Greek -- flexible, elegant and capable of great complexity.

XML is most often used to move large amounts of information, such as entire databases, among computers. You open XML by introducing new terms and defining what they'll do, nesting new definitions inside of those you've already created. Of this, Swartz created a kind of pidgin, a simple set of definitions called RSS.

He made the Web move

Before RSS, the Web was static, a place of bookmarks. You had to go to a site to see what was new. Swartz's pidgin made it easy for updates to travel among websites. If you see a box on a Web page that reads "new headlines," those headlines very likely arrived on the back of an RSS feed. At the age of 14, Swartz made the Web move. He committed suicide on Jan. 11 at the age of 26.

Swartz was not the only author of RSS. Dave Winer, also often credited with the standard, wrote his own remembrance of Swartz; he also linked to his chronology of the development of RSS, which does not mention Swartz at all.

This uncertainty is endemic of the way the Internet moves forward. Its greatest advances have come from smart people trying to solve the same problem for free, together or at odds, and often in the orbit of a university. As a teenager, Swartz hung out at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, where Winer was also later a fellow.

Commercial empires rely on these advances. Then they attempt to own them.

When Apple (AAPL) decided to start accepting RSS as a way to get podcasts into iTunes, it marched all over the standard, muddying it with its own mostly superfluous Apple-centric definitions. It had the power to do this, back when it owned the market for portable MP3 players. Apple did not invent RSS or podcasting, but it has won mightily from the work of Swartz and Winer.

Twitter was founded as a podcasting company. It later used RSS as one of the ways to distribute its messages.

Tension at the heart of the Internet

This is the tension at the heart of the Internet: whether to own or to make. You can own a site or a program -- iTunes, Microsoft Word, Facebook (FB), Twitter -- but you can't own a language. Yet the languages, written for beauty and utility, make sites and programs useful and possible. You make the Internet work by making languages universal and free; you make money from the Internet by closing off bits of it and charging to get in.

There's certainly nothing wrong with making money, but without the innovations of complicated, brilliant people like Swartz, no one would be making any money at all.

RSS was just one of Swartz's accomplishments. He helped found Reddit, a social networking site. He could have been Mark Zuckerberg, and the two traveled in the same circles in Cambridge, Mass. But where Zuckerberg built an empire, Swartz kept looking for fights.

He challenged the practice of charging to download case law, which sits in the public domain. He snuck into a closet at MIT with a laptop and used the university's connection to download much of the archive of JSTOR, a fee-based catalogue of journal articles, many written by taxpayer-funded academics. The Department of Justice prosecuted him for this; his family believes the harassment played a part in his death.

Swartz wasn't an anarchist. He came to believe that copyright law had been abused and was being used to close off what, by law, should be open.

It's hard to find fault with his logic, and there's much to admire in a man who, rather than become a small god of the Valley, was willing to court punishment to prove a point. The world will have no trouble remembering Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and this is as it should be. But it should remember, too, people like Aaron Swartz, the ones who make those empires possible.


More from Bloomberg Businessweek

Jan 14, 2013 5:42PM
Aaron Swartz is a genius and a true hero of the people
Jan 14, 2013 6:19PM
His death was an incalculable loss to us all.
Jan 14, 2013 8:18PM
There are "some" who are breathing alot easier right now.
Jan 14, 2013 8:12PM
Thanks for the article, Brenda.  Aaron Swartz remains an important figure in the fight to keep the Internet open.  We need more openness regarding legal opinions and the law, in general.  The laws are interpreted and refined through public pleadings.  We should all have more access.
Jan 14, 2013 8:12PM
I am sure the pressure put on him by government contributed to his death.  I don't know who was right and who was wrong so I can't take sides.  However, I do know the government can be a detrimental factor in one's life.  When one worries that someoen is out to get them, then life would seem to be miserable.  What I feel strongly about is if legal or illegal drugs contributed to his death.  I think far too many people die from the junk put out with the blessings of the FDA, a governmental agency.  I wish, if legal or illegal drugs were a contributing factor, his family could hold them accountable for his death.
Jan 14, 2013 6:33PM

Aaron Swartz wanted to do "civil disobedience" without facing the jail time.  While it is sad that he is gone, and I am sorry for his family, there are many people who go to jail through no fault of their own:


Black men whom social workers engineer into jail terms for "failure to support" when those black men have no jobs and (by law) shouldn't be placed in jail. Having been in jail, they then have little chance to get a job in which they might advance--thus their lives are ruined by social workers with an attitude and judges who don't bother to ask "do you have a job?" 


College boys who have sex (while drunk) with girls (who are drunk) and are then prosecuted for "rape" though they were also drunk and couldn't consent to sex with the girl any more than the girl could consent to have sex with the boy.


People who smoke marijuana and are not white enough and wealthy enough to get the charges reduced. Etc.


Swartz knew perfectly well that it is illegal to go into a closet at a university and plug your computer directly into the university's network without permission. He knew it was illegal to name yourself "Gary Host." He knew this well enough that he tried to hide his face with a mask and then ran when pursued by the police. He was caught, on camera, red-handed.  He then tried to evade taking any responsibility for what he had done--had he admitted that he was guilty (for heaven's sake--there was VIDEO) and taken a plea deal or negotiated a deal to push the case along so that he could appeal the decision and clarify the law, then the prosecutors would probably have obliged with a much lower charge and might not even have requested jail time (whether or not he went to jail would have been in the hands of a judge).



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