How to Celebrate Aaron Swartz’s Legacy? Go to a Hackathon This Weekend

A co-founder of Creative Commons talks about the Internet activist.
(Photo: Daniel J. Sieradski)
Nov 7, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Lisa Rein is is a freelance journalist who has written for Wired News, O'Reilly Network, CNet, BoingBoing and H+. She is also the Coordinator of Aaron Swartz Day and the co-founder of Creative Commons.

Despite what you may have heard to the contrary, in the tech community, hacking is a good thing.

It’s called “a good hack” when someone's able to make two or three seemingly incompatible pieces of software work together. Hackers collaborate with each other to create solutions, hacking through assumed limitations.

Unfortunately, the public more often than not sees hackers in a negative light. To change that, this weekend the tech community will take part in hackathon events across 12 cities, including San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Kathmandu, in honor of one of the most controversial hackers of them all, Aaron Swartz.

Aaron, who would’ve turned 28 on Saturday, committed suicide in 2013 during a relentless federal prosecution that accused him of being the very worst sort of hacker—something I know to be untrue.

It's been really hard to watch this story unfold over this last year. At first it seemed like perhaps Aaron's actions had crossed some kind of legal or ethical boundry. However, now, after more than a year of careful analysis, the evidence suggests that Aaron most likely was not breaking any laws at all. He was just doing something innovative and unexpected. This is one of the main reasons we need to protect young innovators like Aaron from misguided government prosecution in the future.

I was Creative Commons’ first technical architect, a job I got upon meeting law school professor Lawrence Lessig at a conference in Washington D.C. in 2001. When I told him that I was an XML geek who’s obsessed with copyright law, he closed his laptop and said that he had a job for me. When he explained what that entailed—expressing licenses in RSS, a simple XML format usually used for news feed syndication—I said that it couldn’t be done, that it was too simple of a format and copyright law was too complex.

Aaron showed me a way to do it. I knew him from his online activity, so I was sure he was the right person to help me—even when I found out that he was only 15.

His viewpoint towards simplicity influenced our entire online model. We decided to create a simple deed, in non-legalese, saying what a license meant. (Our lawyers still created lengthy legal documents for each license, using existing copyright law, to cover all the legal protections we wished each license to afford.)

Our team created a web site where a person could answer a series of yes or no questions to pick a license. At last, our dance of simplicity was complete. With Aaron’s help, Creative Commons licenses have become a truly elegant hack.

The San Francisco-based Internet Archive will host its own hackathon on Saturday and Sunday to honor Aaron. Many will attest to his goal of using code to improve the world, so hackers at the event will write software to try just that. Some of the projects focus on what Aaron started himself, such as SecureDrop, the open source whistleblower submission platform whose development was taken over by the Freedom of the Press Foundation last year.

Hackers will get to present their ideas at the beginning, then code to develop them. At the end of the event, they’ll showcase the results. Most of the software will be released under an open source license.

The weekend’s overall theme? Setting the record straight. In addition to pushing forward his projects into the future, the event aims to shed light on misconceptions about Aaron. That includes why he downloaded large numbers of journal articles from the JSTOR database on MIT’s network, the act that caught the attention of the Secret Service before Aaron took his own life. Director Brian Knappenberger will be present for a Q&A following a screening of Internet's Own Boy.

Like Aaron, we think of hacking as a way of leaving out the negative elements and cherry picking the good parts to create something better. Hacking built the Internet. It’s with this spirit this weekend that we’re commemorating him.

This article was created in association with the social action campaign for The Internet’s Own Boy, which is being released by TakeParts parent company, Participant Media, and filmbuff.

You can RSVP to the Aaron Swartz Day Celebration, a hackathon hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco on Nov. 8 from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. here.