Aaron’s Story – project 5 from Story Telling manual, bring history to life,  7-9 minutes

I have chosen a person in recent history ……………but first

Who knows their Greek mythology? Who knows Prometheus?  The son of a titan, who gave knowledge to the people, defied the gods and gave the secret of fire to humans.  This so enraged Zeus that he had Prometheus chained to a large rock.  An eagle would come every day to taunt him and pick at his liver.   For 30 years this went on until Hercules in defiance of Zeus killed the eagle, cut the chains and set Prometheus free.

Fellow toastmasters and guests, hold Prometheus in your peripheral vision, if I mention internet rebel the chances are you’ll pick Edward Snowden, Julian Assange even Kim Dotcom but it is Aaron Swartz whose downloading was in a different category who I want to talk about.

Who was Aaron Swartz? What were his Beliefs and values? What did he do?

Born in 1986 in Chicago, eldest of three boys, his father owned a software company.  Aaron Swartz immersed himself in the study of computers, programming, the internet and internet culture.  By 13 he was winning prizes for his work on websites and included in working groups on web syndication specifications.  He started his own software company Infogami and was a millionaire by the age of 19.  Money wasn’t what excited him. He gave up greater riches in Silicon Valley choosing to pour himself into promoting civic awareness and net freedom.   He was passionate that public documents or documents paid for by the taxpayer should be freely available and not behind a private paywall.  Aaron knew that access to knowledge and access to justice had become about access to money and he wanted to change that.

So what did he do amongst other things?

In 2006 he downloaded the complete bibliographic dataset of the Library of Congress who charge fees to access items and posted them on online on OpenLibrary   making them available free to everyone.

In 2008 using his access to the Sacramento Library he downloaded and released  almost 3 million federal court documents stored in PACER (public access to court electronic records) from the office of the United States Courts to make them available for free on online instead of the expensive 10 cents charge per page before access was shut down.  An estimated 20% of the entire data base had been downloaded before he was blocked.  This attracted the attention of the FBI which ultimately after 2 months decided not to press charges as the documents were in fact public documents.

In 2011 he led a successful campaign against Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which sought to combat internet copyright violations.  The basis of the Act was to make it easier for the US government to shut down websites. This law would have virtually closed the majority of websites including Wikipedia in the name of copyright protection.


Later in 2011 as a research fellow at Harvard University conducting research studies on Institutional Corruption   he used his Harvard access to get access to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Journal storage (JSTOR) organization that charged institutions enormous amounts of money for subscriptions.     He was at the time researching corruption in scientific publications on climate change.   Over the course of a few weeks he downloaded slightly under 5 million academic journal articles posting them to the open internet for free access.  MIT became concerned.   Aaron had on the face of it taken every book out of the library making them available to everyone for free.

This time the FBI considered Aaron went too far so on the night of January 6th 2012 he was arrested by Massachusetts Police and a U. S. Secret Service Agent and charged with breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony.  He would be indicted by a federal grand jury using the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act citing breach of contract (which was subsequently removed from the Act earlier in 2014) on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. Within a year 9 more indictments would be added increasing his maximum criminal exposure to 35 years in prison and $1m fine.  The criminal justice system with its biases and prejudices, office politics and personal ambitions would chain him to an impossible rock and the FBI eagle would taunt him, never leaving him alone.   The FBI wanted to make an example of him after all they hadn’t been able to get Snowdon, Assange or Kim Dotcom.  On 11 January 2013 distressed out of money and knowing two of his friends had been subpoenaed and not believing that MIT and Jstor would stop the prosecution he ended it all. There was no Hercules to slay the eagle, cut the chains and fee Aaron.

Immediately following his death scholars began posting links to their articles, scientist and economists began posting their academic articles online as a tribute to Swartz.  Universities announced scholarships in memory of Swartz.  He posthumously received awards for being an outspoken advocate of unrestricted access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles.  A month after his death the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act described as Aarons law was introduced to Congress and is working its way through the system.  It will provide open access to taxpayer funded peer reviewed scientific research when passed into law.

The benefit of what Arron had done is enormous.  The price of a single journal article which in some countries was equivalent to a month’s pay is now free.  People can now do their own research for legal matters. They now have access to free court documents and statutes.  Researchers can search to find if their ideas can match up with others.

What can we take from our modern day Prometheus?   What had Aaron done?  He had used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the internet and the world a fairer place.      He wanted to liberate scholarly documents backed by public money and make them freely available to all.    What can you challenge, question with your talents and skills to make our society a fairer place?


Pauline Gallagher   24 September 2014