Aaron Swartz at Boston Wikipedia Meetup, 2009-08-18

10 years after Aaron Swartz’s passing, the world has become more closed off

Last Wednesday marked the 10th anniversary of Aaron Swartz’s passing. On January 11, 2013, Aaron took his own life in his apartment at the age of 26.

A visionary and courageous genius

Compared to famous figures like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Swartz’s name may not be as widely known, with Taiwanese and Hong Kong media seldom covering his achievements. You would never find his name on any rich list. However, among those who support freedom, openness, and creativity within the hacker community (not to be confused with cybercriminals), his contributions and status arguably surpass the founders of major internet companies, even Apple and Google.

This doesn’t mean Aaron’s entrepreneurial accomplishments were lackluster. In fact, he founded Infogami, which later merged with Reddit before he left the company (Reddit is somewhat similar to Hong Kong’s HKGolden Forum and Taiwan’s PTT, but on a much larger scale). At a young age, he completed the typical cycle of a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Aaron later became a key engineer for the Internet Archive’s Open Library project, and Infogami’s software was used to support this initiative. Additionally, he co-developed the initial RSS standard and the widely used Markdown language among technologists. Rather than saying Aaron was not good at making money, it’s more accurate to say his aspirations lay elsewhere – he focused solely on using software, advocacy, and writing to build an open internet.

An open internet encompasses several aspects: open source code, open protocols, and open knowledge. Aaron was involved in all three. For instance, in open source, he co-developed the web.py Python web app framework, Tor2web, and DeadDrop among other free software. If Aaron were still alive today, he would likely be a central figure in the blockchain community.

RSS, designed with Aaron’s involvement, was a crucial protocol in the early days of the internet. It allowed users to track updates from various websites and vice versa, enabling websites to disseminate information to followers. Unfortunately, bad money drives out good, and closed systems have defeated open ones. With the rise of Facebook and the closure of Google Reader, the largest RSS reader, RSS has become increasingly marginalized with fewer and fewer users. Google’s decision to terminate Reader services, despite its “Don’t be evil” motto, is arguably one of the worst decisions ever made – not only betraying the open standard in principle but also contributing to Facebook’s success and sowing the seeds of future troubles.

As for open information, Aaron helped design the technical framework for Creative Commons during its early stages, which is now celebrating its 20th anniversary. RSS, as an open standard, not only facilitated the dissemination and consolidation of information but was also used for labeling web page metadata, such as corresponding licenses. Through RSS, internet users could not only manage their sources of information but also filter open content and further mix and use it according to licensing details.

All censorship should be deplored.

Aaron Swartz

The most painful chapter in the path of universal access to knowledge

In 2008, Aaron downloaded more than two million legal documents from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and made them public, challenging PACER’s unreasonable practice of charging 8 cents per page for public documents. The incident caught the attention of the FBI, which decided not to prosecute after an investigation.

However, his continuous commitment to open information ultimately led Aaron to a dead end.

On January 6, 2011, police from MIT and U.S. federal agents arrested Aaron, accusing him of breaking into a wiring closet earlier and using MIT’s network to download a massive number of articles from the academic journal website JSTOR. Federal prosecutors charged Aaron with multiple counts of “dishonest use of a computer” and other crimes, facing a million-dollar fine and 35 years in prison. After more than a year of negotiation between the prosecution and defense, Aaron persistently refused to accept a six-month sentence as a criminal, and eventually took his own life.

Aaron firmly believed in the free flow of knowledge. It was clear that his actions violated the law, but prosecutors, focused on protecting the interests of the established system, ignored the motives and spirit behind his actions. They demonized a young man with ideals and talent, insisting on labeling him as a serious criminal and not resting until he faced a severe sentence. These legal personnel believed they were upholding justice, but in fact, they helped tyranny and failed both the law and society.

After Aaron’s death, the federal government withdrew the charges, and his actions gained public recognition. He was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame by the Internet Society, and society commemorates him annually on Aaron Swartz Day. However, Aaron’s unfulfilled aspirations continue to be shelved, and the internet has not become more open.

In the past decade, China has unilaterally locked down the internet, the United States has restricted Chinese internet companies, giant platforms such as WeChat and Facebook have trapped most “internet” users within a close garden, and the iPhone has trapped an even broader population within the App Store controlled by a single company. All these phenomena indicate that the internet has become more closed off than it was ten years ago.

The broken mechanism of academic papers

Apart from the above-mentioned trends, there has been a recent incident closely related to the JSTOR paper download action a decade ago.

On November 3rd last year, the world’s largest shadow library, Z-Library, was blocked by the US government. Although the establishment had tried several times to rectify Z-Library, this time the US government blocked over 140 domain names and corresponding mirror sites and arrested two Russian operators. The public considered this day as the end of Z-Library. The incident clearly demonstrates that traditional companies waving the banner of intellectual property rights protection still dominate the global flow of knowledge in a closed ecosystem.


However, the so-called end is only for “normal people.” Blocking a large number of domain names only means that people can’t access Z-Library in the most familiar and accustomed way, such as using Safari or Chrome browsers and entering addresses like (https://) z-lib.org. Those determined to break through the wall can always find a way, such as connecting to bookszlib…onion (posting the complete address here might cause my newsletter to be blocked by the service provider) using the Tor browser.

Using the dark web’s Z-Library is certainly not as convenient as a “normal” website, but it’s not necessarily rocket science that only hardcore technical talents can understand. Just like whether mainland Chinese netizens can use Google, the official answer is no, but those who are determined can always learn to “surf the internet scientifically.” I believe the logic is the same when asked whether one would lose all assets overnight if the government “banned” cryptocurrency. The essence of the internet and blockchain is openness. Whether a specific service can be used depends on human efforts, and only when the masses voluntarily cooperate with the blockade can the “locking of the internet” happen.

Z-Library, with tens of millions of books, is a favorite of many book lovers. You might say that if you love books, you should buy the original instead of downloading pirated copies. This is true but not comprehensive. For example, I myself buy original paper books and download the same book from Z-Library for preservation, reference, and content searching. Moreover, Z-Library also contains a large number of books that have entered the public domain or are out of print and cannot be purchased legally. Using Z-Library to acquire and preserve knowledge doesn’t necessarily contradict giving back to creators and publishers; it depends on the user themselves.

In addition to book lovers, many graduate students also use Z-Library due to its over 80 million article and paper collections. When Aaron Swartz downloaded a large number of papers from JSTOR, he was dissatisfied with the knowledge being trapped. Except for a few students studying at resource-rich universities, most of the world’s population could not access these papers, and even if they knew about them, they might not be able to afford them. More ironically, while claiming to protect authors by upholding intellectual property rights, most scholars gain nothing in this closed system, powerless to oppose the long-standing institutional practices in academia and reluctantly participating in the collective effort.

It is said in academic circles that many paper uploaders on Z-Library are not thieves but the authors themselves. I can’t verify this, but I think this seemingly absurd statement is quite reasonable. Unless it’s a diary locked in a drawer, even the most laid-back authors like me write for people to read. Academic research is the same; no one would want their papers, which they have devoted years to, to be read by only a pitiful few hundred or even dozens of people, let alone not necessarily generating income from them.

Those who have a little understanding of how the academic world works know that the value of a paper is measured by citations. The more people cite it, the higher its value, just like the more web pages link to a website, the higher its PageRank, and the higher its ranking in Google search results. The problem is that your paper is not the theory of relativity; trapped in JSTOR, how can it be discovered, read, and cited? Understanding this logic, one can see why uploading one’s paper to Z-Library is not only not “shooting oneself in the foot,” but also a very rational move.

The more cited a paper is, the higher its status; the more people read a book, the more enduring it becomes; the more fluid the information, the more valuable it is. Information is alive, and in the age of information explosion, only fluid information has value.

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