Goodbye, Aaron Swartz. The Fight for Openness Continues.
Almost a week ago, the world lost one of the most amazing and effective voices for democracy on the Internet. His name was Aaron Swartz, and he was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and activist. Aaron was one of the cofounders of the website Reddit and co-authored the RSS standard.
What Aaron Swartz was best known for, however, was his activism and a stringent belief that important information be opened up to the public at large. He was also heavily involved in fighting Internet censorship through Demand Progress, an organization he helped to create.
One of Aaron’s first endeavors at making restricted information accessible to benefit the public interest was acquiring the Library of Congress’s bibliographic dataset and putting it online. This was followed by Swartz’s releasing of 20 percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database free of charge to anyone who wanted the information. Finally, in what appears to be one of Aaron Swartz’s most controversial activities, was the downloading of four million academic journals from the JSTOR library and making them available to everyone.
Though Aaron is now gone, there is a lesson to be learned in his relentless drive at opening up information to the world. In regards to the environmental movement, there has always been a struggle to obtain information from the government and corporations after environmental disasters occur.
For decades now as a movement, we’ve been fighting Dow Chemical over the Bhopal disaster. They have been accused of deliberately withholding information on Union Carbide’s involvement in this tragedy. Also, much more information about this event still remains classified by scientists, government officials and medical personnel.
In the fight over Love Canal, residents organized to investigate a high rate of birth defects, miscarriages, strange odors and other substances that were the result of contamination from dumped materials. Their efforts were stymied by city officials including the mayor, who withheld information and refused to do anything. Eventually, it took the EPA stepping in for the matter to be addressed.
In more recent times, it took a decade for the federal government to finally admit that the air near ground zero in Manhattan was not safe for the first responders of 9/11. At the time, we had EPA Director Christine Todd Whitman misleading the public, saying the air was safe.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis famously once said, “Sunlight is the greatest disinfectant.” That is what Aaron believed as well. Those of us who continue to fight for democracy and openness on and off the Internet are Aaron Swartz’s legacy.