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On Aaron Swartz: Looking Forward

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Flickr: EIFL: knowledge without boundaries
Flickr: EIFL: knowledge without boundaries

It's been five days since Aaron Swartz took his life in New York City and one day since his funeral. The tragic news has both outraged and saddened the Internet community and beyond.

Aaron's story resonates with so many people. It has elements of classic lore: a young, often misunderstood genius, persecuted by a corrupt authority, takes his life before his good work can be realized.

Perhaps even more tragically, it has taken Aaron's death for many to understand and protest the injustices he faced. It's right to critique the U.S. prosecutor's office that bullied Aaron to a point of desperation. But we should also focus attention on his good work, which was rooted in the belief that openness and access to knowledge are essential to social justice and a healthy democracy.

Aaron's death has inspired some of our generation's finest thinkers to consider his life. Looking forward, here's what they had to offer:

Danah Boyd:

So what I really hope comes out of this tragedy is some serious community reflection about the tactics of change-making and activism employed by geeks to combat abuses of power.... What Aaron should be remembered for is not what he did as an individual, but how he empowered so many others -- and provided a foundation for change and activism that went far beyond him.

Matt Stoller:

Aaron should be remembered, in the context of social justice. [The Jan. 18, 2012 SOPA protest] was about a call for a different world, not just protecting our ability to access web sites. And we should remember these underlying values. It would help people understand that justice can be extremely costly, and that we risk much when we allow those who do the right thing to be punished. Somehow, we need to rebuild a culture that respects people like Aaron and turns away from the greed and rent-extraction that he hated. ... if we are to honor Aaron's life, we will recognize him as a broad social justice activist who cared about transforming our society, and acted to do so. And we will take up his fight as our own.

Larry Lessig:

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life "to make money." He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?

David Weinberger:

It wasn't just that he was persecuted out of all proportion for trying to contribute more. Above all, he embodied what is best and hopeful about the Internet: its endless information, its ethos of sharing, its joy in connecting friends and strangers, its unflinching transparency about its own limitations, its promise -- by no means yet delivered -- of a world that is more open, more knowledgeable, and, above all, more fair ... a world that reflects the values of the Internet at its best.

Cory Doctorow:
Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.

Gabriella Coleman:

As the public confronts the tragic loss of that astonishing hacker, who for too short of a time poured his soul into making the world a better place, who improved everyone's life who uses the Internet, maybe this time we can see a different side to hackers. Maybe now we can begin the slow but necessary process of transforming perceptions of hackers... Maybe now we can start to appreciate, instead of criminalize, those bright kids who are doing things that we depend on, that often make our lives better, and are undaunted by powerful people trying to stop them.

Tim Wu:

In an age when our frontiers are digital, the criminal system threatens something intangible but incredibly valuable. It threatens youthful vigor, difference in outlook, the freedom to break some rules and not be condemned or ruined for the rest of your life. Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future. Now we will never know.

I knew and worked alongside Aaron for several years. We were friendly allies but not good friends. I mourn for his family and loved ones, whose suffering must be unspeakable, and for the loss of a fellow traveler who had much more to offer to the fight for Internet freedom and social justice.

But my grievances are with a system that protects and promotes unscrupulous prosecutors like Carmen Ortiz, Scott Garland and Stephen Heymann -- people in power who criminalize outsiders to advance their own interests. (Heymann reportedly hounded Aaron because he thought the case would generate "juicy" headlines and publicity for the prosecutors).

If any good can come of this, it's the wider attention Aaron's death has brought to his struggle with corruption, and his efforts to create the tools needed to fix it.

While Aaron often scorned institutions of higher learning, it's out of these schools that we'll likely find the next Aaron Swartz. In his name we should create a scholarship fund to support young and rebellious minds so we can foster their ideas, encourage their activism and steel them against a system that too often targets disruptive genius.

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