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Aaron Swartz Remains a Symbol for Internet Activists

Image: Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, a noted Internet freedom ''hakctivist,'' died in Jan. 2013 26. Michael Francis McElroy / Zuma Press file

Two years ago, the Internet went on strike. Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Tumblr and others staged virtual protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a law activists claimed would restrict freedom of speech online.

The pressure was perhaps too much for lawmakers to handle. SOPA was shelved and activists claimed Jan. 18 as "Internet Freedom Day." This year, plenty of the same issues that drove those protests — Internet censorship, privacy and open access to information — will be brought up again.

One of the movement's central figures, Aaron Swartz, won't be around to debate them. The 26-year-old activist took his own life a little more than a year ago, after being charged with hacking into the library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading millions of academic articles.

Since Swartz's death, he has become a rallying point over the intervening years, filled with revelations about government data collection, massive corporate hacks, and increasingly invasive social networks.

"If Aaron were alive, he'd be on the front lines, fighting against a world in which governments observe, collect, and analyze our every digital action," reads the website for "The Day We Fight Back," a campaign to protest against the scope of the NSA's electronic surveillance program. Swartz has also been invoked in the name of reforming everything from copyright law to campaign finance laws.

"In some ways, his message is still relevant because of what hasn't changed."

"There was something special about him," Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who first met Swartz in 2008, told NBC News. "As a personal tragedy, his death was a wake-up call.”

Even before his activism, Swartz had serious tech bonafides. He was instrumental in developing RSS at the age of 14. In 2006, before he could legally celebrate with a glass of champagne, Reddit, which he cofounded, was sold to Conde Nast.

He gradually became a prominent figure in Internet activist circles, both by launching non-profits like Demand Progress and, after his death, bringing attention to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) — an amendment made to an existing law in 1986 that allows federal prosecutors to charge people for “exceeding authorized access” to private computers, which includes things as seemingly minor as violating a website's terms of service contract.

The law made it possible for federal prosecutors to push for jail time for Swartz, even as JSTOR dropped its civil suit against him. Swartz' death prompted Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) to introduce Aaron's Law, a series of reforms to the CFAA. His suicide also brought attention to open access issues and a host of other Internet activist causes.

“In some ways, his message is still relevant because of what hasn't changed," said Brian Knappenberger, director of "The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz," which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20.

The director said that Swartz almost certainly would have been interested in the revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the battle over net neutrality, which was renewed this week after a U.S. district court invalidated regulations that forced telecom companies to treat all Internet traffic equally.

Swartz was concerned about government surveillance issues long before it became a hot topic in the media, multiple people who knew him said, which made his premature death a big blow to the privacy activists — partly because of his skill at making complicated technical issues accessible to regular people, according to Higgins, the EFF activist.

"One of the struggles when you’re talking about online rights and Internet freedom is making sure the right metaphor gets adopted — that email is like mail, and that mail should be private," he said. "If the wrong metaphor gets adopted and email is described like a postcard, or worse, like shouting in a crowded room, then you lose that privacy."

The dramatic death of Swartz — along with Snowden's NSA leaks — have put Internet privacy and access issues on the front pages of newspapers across the world. One of his longtime friends, however, has recently been drawing attention to a political problem that has plagued governments for as long as they have existed: corruption.

"Part of Aaron's life was moving from the very technical to the very political," said Lawrence Lessig, director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was a fellow. "Aaron was the one who motivated me to shift my work from Internet freedom to focus on this issue of corruption."

On the anniversary of Swartz' death, Lessig began a walk across the entire state of New Hampshire in order to bring attention to political corruption ahead of the 2016 presidential election. It was an issue Swartz cared greatly about, said Lessig, because it would affect nearly every other political issue he was involved with.

“It’s hard to overstate his impact,” Higgins said, noting that lawmakers used to dismiss online activism as “hacktivism” practiced by teenage boys in their basements. “That kind of statement is getting harder to defend. Thanks to Aaron, this is just how activism works in 2014.”