(An earlier version of this story ran online.)
The Internet is just an agreement, several languages we’ve all decided to have in common. The volunteer engineers who write these languages follow a principle they call “rough consensus running code.” There is no hierarchy, no owner, just consensus—smart and often cranky people eventually, reluctantly agreeing. When he was 14, Aaron Swartz convinced engineers decades older than himself that he could build rough consensus around a new standard called RSS. Then he did.
Before RSS, the Web was static, a place of bookmarks. Now headlines and podcasts move among sites on the back of an RSS feed. Swartz could write code but spent more time on rough consensus. And he refused to give up. “A lot of people will do a hackathon for a day or a weekend,” says Carl Malamud, a friend, “but to build these big applications … you have to be obsessive for months on end. A lot of it is brute force.” Swartz, whose paired gifts were brute force and consensus, committed suicide on Jan. 11 at the age of 26.
Swartz could have been Mark Zuckerberg. The two traveled in the same circles in Cambridge, Mass. Swartz cashed in on his work as a co-founder of Reddit, a social networking site. But he never attempted to become a mogul. This is the tension at the heart of the Internet: whether to own or to make. You can own a site or a program—Apple’s (AAPL) iTunes, Microsoft (MSFT) Word, Facebook (FB), Twitter—but you can’t own a language. Yet the languages make sites and programs useful and possible. You make the Internet work by making languages universal and free; you make money from the Internet by closing off bits of it and charging to get in. There’s certainly nothing wrong with making money, but without the innovations of complicated, brilliant people like Swartz, no one would be making any money at all.
He chose the fights of an activist. He ripped and uploaded a summary of the entire contents of the Library of Congress. He helped build a free public database of U.S. case law. He snuck into a closet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and used MIT’s connection to download much of the archive of JSTOR, a fee-based catalog of journal articles, many written by taxpayer-funded academics. The Department of Justice was prosecuting him for this when he died; Swartz suffered from depression, but in his eulogy, his father said, “he was killed by the government.”
Swartz wasn’t an anarchist. He believed copyright law had been abused and was being used to close off what legally is open. It’s hard to find fault with his logic, and there’s much to admire in a man who, rather than become a small god of the Valley, was willing to court punishment to prove a point. The world will have no trouble remembering Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But it should remember, too, people like Aaron Swartz, the ones who make their empires possible.