As news of the death of respected activist and developer Aaron Swartz rippled across the Internet yesterday, admirers kick-started what would become a mass demonstration honoring his commitment to open access to information.
Swartz, who committed suicide Friday, faced charges for attempting to publicly release academic papers from the digital library JSTOR, which potentially could have sent him to jail for more than 35 years if he were convicted. In a statement, Swartz's family blamed the intensity of the charges for contributing in part to his suicide.
By Sunday morning, hundreds of academics had begun tweeting links to their copyright-protected research as a protest in Swartz's honor, using the hastag #pdftribute.
Links scraped from Twitter posts featuring the hastag are being aggregated at Pdftribute.net. Many of the links appear to be to academic papers.
According to CNET, Micah Allen, a researcher in cognitive science and neuroscience, was an early proponent of the protest, posting it among the many tribute threads on Reddit, the popular social news site that Swartz helped design.
On his blog, Allen credited Oxford University PhD student Jessica Richman, and Eva Vivalt, a development economist, with creating the hastag, contacting like-minded individuals and reaching out to Anonymous, who helped take the protest viral.
Richman wrote on ScienceCitizen.org Jan. 13:
Late last night, I noticed that @evavivalt was opening access to her papers online in tribute to the memory of Aaron Swartz. I tweeted to some people I know in Silicon Valley, and to some friends of Aaron’s, and then Anonymous picked it up — and it just caught on. We’ve now had over 3.5 million impressions and over 500 tweets per hour.
As the movement gained steam, Vivalt urged researchers to take action, and others to contribute their ideas:
Love the general support of #pdftribute, but I'd like to see more links to papers and more thoughts on how to move forward.
— Eva Vivalt (@evavivalt) January 13, 2013
In 2011, Swartz was charged with stealing millions of scientific journal articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them available for free. He pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month.
He 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.”
"We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion." Read more here.
"What I feel right now is anger. I'm angry at Aaron, angry at the state, angry at MIT, angry at anti-hactivist sentiment & angry at myself." Read Boyd's full statement on Swartz's death here.
"Whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it." Read more here.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Read more here.
"The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.' For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million-dollar trial in April -- his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it." Read more here.
"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." Read more here.
"I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in Fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it." Read more here.
On Sunday night, one day after Swartz's death, Anonymous knocked out Internet access at MIT, according to The Tech, a campus newspaper. Two MIT-affiliated websites were rewritten with the following message from the hacktivist group: "Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for - freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it - enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing - an ideal that we should all support." Read the full text of the hack here.
"Ada [O'Brien's daughter] cried, then we hugged, then Ada suggested we have a goodbye party, with ice-cream and sprinkles and a movie, and make a board where we could pin all our memories. We laughed at how funny he was. Aaron taught her so well." Read more here. Correction: This slide originally reported that Ada was Aaron Swartz's daughter, not Danny O'Brien's. The Huffington Post regrets this error.