Aaron Swartz: As JSTOR opens it doors amid pandemic, people laud hacker who fought for access to knowledge

Aaron Swartz: As JSTOR opens it doors amid pandemic, people laud hacker who fought for access to knowledge
'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz' (IMDb)

Last week, digital library JSTOR announced that internet users could search open access content on JSTOR ― containing more than 6,000 ebooks and over 150 journals ― without login in the wake of many universities shifting to remote learning. The repository started with digitized back issues of academic journals and now encompasses books and other primary sources as well as current issues of journals ― and is a top source for academics and students worldwide. 

JSTOR's announcement first confused many, who thought that the database was removing the paywall for all its content. This brought into the fore conversations about Aaron Swartz — a co-developer of web feed format RSS and a co-founder of Reddit who was charged with two counts of wire fraud and eleven violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Swartz played a significant role in making government and academic data more available for free to the public.

The charges against Swartz, announced in July 2011 by the Massachusetts US attorney's office, were that he hardwired a laptop into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on-campus network in 2010 to download nearly 5 million academic journal articles from JSTOR.

JSTOR decided not to pursue charges and asked the government not to prosecute, but Swartz was indicted by federal prosecutors for 13 felony charges. Prosecutors refused all settlement offers that did not include jail time, and required Swartz to plead guilty to felony charges.

When Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013, the case was still pending. After his death, all charges were dropped. Concerns that the charges were excessive led to a Congressional investigation of the way prosecutors handled the case. Since then, Swartz’s case has inspired proposed amendments to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would remove the “dangerously broad criminalization of online activity,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Writer Brian Knappenberger accepts the Best Documentary Screenplay award for 'The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz' onstage at the 2015 Writers Guild Awards L.A. Ceremony at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 14, 2015, in Century City, California (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

After Swartz's death, JSTOR released a statement saying, "We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit."

Swartz was a  fierce advocate of the open access movement ― which promotes free and easy access to the world's knowledge online. He was also a social activist. In 2010, he co-founded Demand Progress, a political advocacy group that organizes people online to "take action by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word" about civil liberties, government reform, and other issues.

Swartz was admired by many, including Tim Berners Lee who is best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Lee had tweeted, "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."

After JSTOR's recent announcement, many took to Twitter to pay tributes to Swartz seven years later. One user tweeted, "Aaron didn't need a global pandemic to declare the crisis and act upon one. [JSTOR's] gesture comes as too little too late. too little too late killed our heroes in the past and keeps killing us day after day. read, share, disobey and remember Aaron Swartz."

Another wrote, "every year JSTOR blocks 150 million access attempts by non-subscribers. they are gatekeepers of knowledge, not facilitators. ppl like Aaron Swartz paid a great price for exposing their bullshit, honor his memory by pirating everything you can get your grubby lil hands on."

One user tweeted, "Slow clap to JSTOR for making folks believe that they have opened all access to their collection when they were just promoting the stuff that's already open. Rest in peace, Aaron Swartz. You spoke to the angels."

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