Of Aaron Swartz, open access and #PDF tributes

Netizens show solidarity with crusader’s mission of access and open information flow

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:40 pm IST

Published - January 15, 2013 12:49 pm IST - BANGALORE

Aaron Swartz was first noticed when he co-authored the RSS standard at 14. File photo.

Aaron Swartz was first noticed when he co-authored the RSS standard at 14. File photo.

On Saturday, the open Internet lost one of its most passionate and talented champions, one who spoke up often against the inequalities of information flow and access on its World Wide Web. Aaron Swartz, all of 26, committed suicide as a result of depression, which many believe was triggered by the federal charges he was facing for hacking into the JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) academic database in 2011. Back then, Swartz had downloaded millions of academic research papers from the subscription database and planned to release them for free. In 2008, he had pulled off a similar hack with public court documents.

Swartz was first noticed when he co-authored the RSS standard (for feeds) at 14, soon after which he became a tireless crusader for free access on the web. He was the chief architect of OpenLibrary.org, a free public catalogue of books under the Internet Archive project, an early member of the Creative Commons team, and more recently, led a successful campaign against two key legislations -- SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) – that sought to clamp down on intellectual property rights violations online. The common thread that ran through all the causes he took up and fought for was his political thought and conviction that “information is power” and that in a digital world it was important to fight what he saw as privatisation of knowledge and information. Some of this he puts down in his 'Guerilla Open Access Manifesto' where he implores academics to declare their opposition to what he calls the “private theft of public culture.”


So in a fitting tribute on Monday, academics across the world paid tribute to this legendary hacker and advocate of a free and equal Internet by putting up PDFs of their copyrighted works online. On the micro-blogging site Twitter, the hashtag #PDFTribute trended all day, triggering a progressive and open debate on copyright, academic work and access.

All the more relevant in the context of a developing country like India, many complained that outside university networks, it was impossible to access academic works. Though few Indian professors were seen participating, the Indian academic journal, Economic and Political Weekly, showed its solidarity to the free and open access movement by releasing at least eight academic papers that were otherwise behind its pay wall. Most of what was released was papers topical or relevant on subjects such as cash transfers, and on Internet freedom and open access.

Speaking to The Hindu , Subhash Rai, EPW ’s senior web editor, said the open access movement in India never really took off. Most academic content is behind pay walls, and in fact many journals are also heading towards a system where you have to make separate payments for access to single articles. This, he pointed out, makes it impossible for even students to access content. Apart from government schemes such as Infiblibnet that allow university students to access various journals, most academic content is still inaccessible in India. “There’s definitely a need to focus on these issues, particularly in the context of a developing country like India.”

Open Library

Swartz believed deeply that technology must facilitate access to information and knowledge. His Open Library project, an open source endeavour that attempts to catalogue all the books in the world, was one of his pet projects that is part of Internet Archive, which has till date put up over three billion books online.

Anand Chitipothu, who works for Internet Archive and manages the Open Library project, says he was “shocked and pained” to hear of Swartz’s suicide. Just a week ago, he said, he had interacted with him at a web conference where the young hacker spoke of “short-term and long-term goals for himself and the project” and had announced that he was about to start a new project called WatchDog.net, an open data platform. His work and convictions, Mr. Chitipothu said, is “extremely relevant” as is his mission to “keep information open and available”.

Regressive regimes

Members of the free software movement here also announced they would dedicate a session of their upcoming five-day workshop to Swartz. Senthil S., a member of the Free Software Movement of Karnataka, said ideologically, Swartz’s message was important as he fought in a system where the government (of the U.S.) posed as a champion of Internet freedom and democracy for other countries even as it backed regressive copyright regimes at home.

“We know Aaron was deeply political and ideologically committed to social justice beyond just digital freedom, and that he saw the connection between 'naked capitalism' and technology and attempted to fight it tooth and nail. One wishes he would have stayed on and connected to the rest of the world, both personally and politically,” Mr. Senthil said.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.