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Aaron Swartz's Work Lives On

Legacy.com / Nick Ehrhardt

Aaron Swartz's Work Lives On

Aaron Swartz fought for a free and fair Internet. The tech genius, who was 26 when he ended his own life Jan. 11, 2013, co-founded the activist group Demand Progress to fight Web censorship, and he co-authored the "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto" to rally fellow hackers to "liberate" information kept from the public by private corporations and public institutions. He was already doing that: In 2008, he downloaded more than 2.5 million federal court documents – more than 19.8 million pages – that the government at the time charged 8 cents per page to access. In 2010, he began accessing academic journals kept in a subscription-based digital library via the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The latter act is what led to his arrest and subsequent indictment by a federal grand jury on wire fraud, computer fraud and other felonies. If convicted, he faced $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison. Swartz declined a plea deal offered by prosecutors, then made a counter offer. Two days after the prosecution declined that deal, Swartz ended his own life.

To mark the anniversary of Swartz's death, Legacy.com looks at how his work continues. As Swartz's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told Democracy NOW! in 2013, "The best tribute we can pay to Aaron's legacy is to continue to fight as hard as we can to make this world a more just, fairer place. That's the thing that he cared most about."

Swartz and another hacker were working on – but never completed – "Dead Drop," a platform that would allow whistleblowers to send documents to journalists without fear of being traced.

In October 2013, the nonprofit Freedom of the Press Foundation announced it had completed the platform, now called "SecureDrop." Any organization can install the system for free.

In his 2008 "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto," Swartz wrote about the importance of open access, noting, "There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture. We need to take information, where it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world."

Since Swartz's death, cities around the world have hosted "hackathons" in his memory. Organizers say these are positive events, "good hacks" that use computer code to improve the world. Most of the software developed at these events is then released under an open-source license.

In February 2014, more than 5,000 websites took part in "The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance," displaying a banner encouraging visitors to let elected officials know they were against such privacy violations.

Swartz and Demand Progress played a key role in defeating the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. In a May 2012 speech, Swartz praised the many individuals who worked along with him to kill the bill and warned them to be vigilant, saying SOPA "will happen again. Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared."

One of Swartz's mentors, Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, has launched MayDayPac, a political action committee that many are calling the "super PAC to end all super PACs." MayDayPac seeks campaign finance reform because it feels the current system encourages corruption and dissuades good governing. The political action committee plans to take an active role in the upcoming 2016 elections.

The federal charges Swartz faced were detailed in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, written in the 1980s. Critics of the law say it needs to be reformed, as it is vague and allows for redundant charges like the many leveled against Swartz.

In June 2013, Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon introduced "Aaron's Law Act of 2013" in Congress. The bill would reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The bill appears stuck in committee, quashed by tech company lobbyists.

But Lofgren and Wyden are continuing the fight. In May 2014 Lofgren was among a group of representatives that introduced a bill aimed at limiting the National Security Agency's surveillance programs by requiring the agency to get a court order before searching U.S. records. In December, Wyden introduced the Secure Data Act in the Senate, prohibiting the government from installing backdoors or vulnerabilities into software and electronics.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."