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Information is Power – A Tribute to Aaron Swartz

His last tweet was a witty answer, apparently a gag at the state of the US economy. His personal blog was called Raw Thought, the last entry of which was a comprehensive analysis of the plot of The Dark Knight.It was a vivid account of the plot which made it possible for even those who hadn’t watched the movie - to easily visualize every scene after reading it. For those who did not know about Aaron Swartz until his tragic death came to light recently, it was a revelation of sorts. The world has lost a great man in Aaron Swartz who understood the full potential of the internet and dedicated his, unfortunately, short yet eventful life for maintaining its freedom. This post is a tribute in his memory and talks about some of his life's key events and struggles.

Aaron Swartz was a child prodigy, digital freedom activist and one of the youngest technology evangelists to make sense(sic). Swartz was an internet pioneer. At the young age of just 14, he helped create a very early version of the RSS, the feature that feeds recently updated news and blog updates on a ticker. Imagine life without it! Swartz was the co-founder of Reddit, the popular social networking news website, which was merged with his own startup Infogami, a wiki platform that he created after dropping out of Stanford. He was the developer of the web.py web application framework and also part of the group which launched the Creative Commons license, which allows access to information, photos and data under a free public copyright license. Wikipedia would not be, but for Creative Commons licensing.

Swartz dropped out of high school just after he’d co-authored the RSS 1.0 specifications, and joined the newly formed Creative Commons group, helping them transform the language of copyright law into niftily crafted code. He later went to Stanford, but dropped out after a year and started Infogami which was funded by the incubator Y Combinator. In 2007, Swartz started an online project called Open Library, which sought to collect metadata from libraries and databases all over the web and  enable anyone to edit those web pages and add to it, a wiki-like digital library index with a  page for each book. Later Swartz wrote a simple script to download 18M pages from the US govt’s online judicial reports server PACER and uploaded them on an open access public server. He argued that since large private law firms end up downloading legal records in bulk, for users looking to download individual records the charge should be removed which was originally at 8 cents a page. Later in 2011, he went on to write a similar script which downloaded 4.8M documents from the MIT online journal archive JSTOR for which he was arrested and faced an impending trial in early 2013, which arguably led to his depression-triggered suicide on January 9. This eulogy doesn’t debate as to whether what he did was right or wrong but that the larger cause of his life was to make information access to everyone open and free.

We, at Team Indus, pause to remember Aaron Swartz who strived for the interests of humankind and rallied in the cause of free culture. We similarly believe that this mission is only possible by standing on the shoulders of giants and seeing further. It is this medium of free and declassified information from academia and government institutions across the world that allows technical know-how to be passed on to those who might be able to build upon it. Quoting Carl Sagan - we are after all part of a common species, residents of the same planet and it's in our interest to push the frontiers in search of knowledge, self realization and more. In the context of GLXP, we truly believe - irrespective of who wins, the joy and celebrations of the achievement will belong to all of humankind.

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