The legacy of Aaron Schwartz, the engineer who became a “martyr” for the free Internet | Technique


Aaron Schwartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013. He was 26 years old and a cultural icon hacker. Still ten years later. He invented part of the Internet infrastructure and vigorously fought against the privatization of knowledge that, in his opinion, was taking place in the digital sphere. At the age of 14, he helped develop basic technology for content subscriptions on the Internet. At 19, he became a millionaire after selling Reddit, the news aggregator he helped build, to magazine publisher Condé Nast. Since then, he has turned to activism. He promoted Creative Commons, which is dedicated to promoting collective intellectual property, and the Open Library, a large collaborative database of books.

He also took more daring actions that got him into trouble with the law. He was facing more than 35 years in prison for violating copyright laws by downloading and posting 4.8 million scholarly articles from the JSTOR repository. This was more than he could bear. Schwartz, who had a depressive personality, committed suicide in the middle of the legal process.

His family and a number of public figures saw in the case excessive persecution of the young man. “The government seems to have lost all sense of proportion on this issue,” complained Tim Berners-Lee, one of the founders of the Internet. Alex Stamos, the former head of cybersecurity at Facebook, denied that Swartz’s action had caused “real danger” to JSTOR, the site from which the activist downloaded millions of articles (access to each costing €40) with the keys he used was a researcher at the University of Harvard. a group hackers Anonymous attacked the Justice Department website after Schwartz’s death, knocking him down for several hours. They said: “Aaron, this is for you.”

“Schwartz is considered a martyr for the cause even by people who, like me, don’t believe in martyrs,” explains Simona Levy, director of Xnet, a digital rights advocacy organization. He was a pioneer in highlighting the blockade of knowledge with practical action, which entails scientific licenses and publications. Their sacrifice has raised awareness about the issue. Since then, there have been a lot of people working on how to break the monopoly of scientific publications,” he adds.

The Young Engineer’s service record is extensive. in 2008 Hacked A public access portal to US judicial files at a cost of 10 cents per consultation. That put the authorities on Schwartz’s path. In fact, when he was arrested years later in the case of publishing scientific articles, a Secret Service agent was involved in his arrest. It also obtained the complete database of the US Library of Congress, which at the time kept a copy of the entire Internet, and dumped it in the Open Library. It is said, though unproven, that he collaborated with Julian Assange at WikiLeaks to develop the technical infrastructure that made the secure document leak possible.

His ideas are included in the manifesto for Open Access Guerrilla, a reference guide for the movement hacker. “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it only for themselves. The entire cultural and scientific heritage of the world, which has been published for centuries in books and articles, is being digitized and sealed by a few private companies. (…) It’s time Time to come out into the open, following the noble tradition of civil disobedience, and declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture,” the text reads.

Magazine cover
Cover of Time magazine dedicated to Edward Snowden, Aaron Schwartz and Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning).

Schwartz didn’t fit the stereotype of hacker Shy and has no social skills. He was a computer genius, but also charismatic, knew how to speak in public and demonstrated leadership skills in leading various initiatives and projects. He was contemplating making the leap into politics at a time when the still young 15-M and Occupy Wall Street movements were showing the mobilization potential offered by the Internet. Perhaps for this reason, to slow down his progress, some say, it was decided to give him a perfect penalty.

activity, a decade later

“For me, Aaron Schwartz is an icon. I embraced the culture hacker “Using technology as an element of freeing people, to make knowledge and information available to others,” says engineer Jaime Gómez Obregon, who has developed various tools to promote political transparency in public sector contracting.

Schwartz’s legacy lives on. His spiritual heiress Alexandra Elbakian, known as Robin Hood to science. This 34-year-old Kazakh engineer and neuroscientist based in Russia is in charge of Sci-Hub, an open repository of referenced scientific articles that has released more than 80 million documents. American justice has been pursuing her since her launch in 2011, and has even investigated her possible connections to the Kremlin, which, as in the case of Edward Snowden, offers her protection.

“The fact that knowledge is only accessible to people with money is an obstacle to the progress of science and research. The rest are fighting against it, just as Schwartz did,” says Levy. For this activist, much progress has been made in the past decade in the demands of science advocates. Open.”The high price of scientific publications in universities is considered a scandal. There is a movement encouraging alternative peer review to be registered in the same way as closed journals. There has been a lot of progress there. And also in the public repositories that many universities participate in,” he explains.

The original promise of the Internet, which was intended to be a great agora in which everything could be shared, has long been buried under the weight of commercial interests. Perhaps the only space for true freedom on the Internet is dark web. The rest has been taken over by some oligopolies and centralized data systems that mean people have no control or power over what they do in the digital realm,” says Albert Kanegiral, author of Business is not what it used to be (Conecta, 2020) and a member of the Ouishare Online Collaboration Network. The expert believes that there is some movement in the activist and academic environments, but not in business. “The big challenge is how to create this bridge.”

“The free software movement and projects like Wikipedia, which seek to spread knowledge in an open way, coexist with the power of big technology, which is trying to turn the Internet into what television has already become: a dump, a kind of tool controlled by a few people to serve their own interests,” Gomez sums up. Obregon. The tension between these two visions of the Internet exists. And the battle continues. In these struggles, martyrs are sometimes needed, faces who are sometimes idealistic, but who allow the struggle to emerge. Schwartz’s death should never have happened, but his death raised awareness for a lot of people.”

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