How to honor Aaron Swartz

Rarely does the name of one person, lacking political office or seat of power, echo across the internet so thoroughly as it did in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s death. How was the work of one person revered by so many, from the front page of every major paper in the US, to radical communities working against various axis of oppression?

Aaron Swartz recognized something. In his own words, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” —Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

Aaron Swartz

Based on an image by Jacob Applebaum via Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0

Many of us have spent time grieving together on message boards, email lists, and with friends. While we mourned the loss of a brilliant hero to a broken and backwards criminal justice system, an outpouring of support for his work roared to life. Almost overnight, recognition of the importance of his mission spread across every corner of the web. What now?

Aaron understood that the way we experience and interact with the world is inseparable from the media and technology around us. He knew that only when they are free from private ownership can we hope to harness their liberatory potential and gain control over our own lives. He has been an invaluable force in the free software and free culture movements, working against the privatization of information, culture, and knowledge.

Aaron fought to tear down the walls that hide big secrets and lock up human knowledge for the profit of the gatekeepers. The pressures which drove him to suicide — up to 50 years in prison and $4 million in fines — were brought against him for a victimless crime. These egregiously harsh punishments for releasing public domain papers locked up on JSTOR may have been due to Aaron’s support of Private Breanna Manning and ties to Wikileaks. Either way, Aaron should have been rewarded.

There is already far too much fear in resisting the powers that Aaron stood up against. We can only carry on his fight by turning this fear into indignation, and indignation into action, just as he did.

In efforts to carry on his work, global hackathons have been planned in his memory; a graduate student made a commitment to free knowledge by boycotting locked-down journals; the Memorial JSTOR Liberator continues the task of releasing public domain documents by crowdsourcing; #PDFTribute was started for authors of academic papers to share their works; and Anonymous defaced the United States Sentencing Commission website with a video threatening a massive exposure of government secrets  in the style of WikiLeaks’ insurance files.

While individual efforts are admirable, Aaron’s work involved much more than opting out of the systems he recognized as broken. He targeted them. He aimed to uproot them. Everything Aaron wrote, whether vernacular or code, was free, but what he died doing was freeing the work of others.

There are already plenty of places to publish and share free cultural works, but this is only half of the battle. The remaining question is how to usurp proprietary knowledge sources. The answer, then, is to eliminate their value by taking the knowledge they amass and release it into the world. Our own rejection of locking up knowledge should be taken for granted. To continue Aaron’s work, we must create an organized movement to take down the gatekeepers which keep hoards of information secret and lock our cultural productions behind their walls.

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