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Aaron Swartz to receive posthumous 'Freedom of Information' award for open access advocacy

Aaron Swartz to receive posthumous 'Freedom of Information' award for open access advocacy

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Swartz Program
Swartz Program

Internet activist and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz is slated to receive posthumous recognition in Washington for his efforts promoting free access to taxpayer-funded research.

The James Madison Freedom of Information Award is administered by the American Library Association, and recognizes "individuals who have championed, protected and promoted public access to government information and the public’s right to know national information."

The award will be presented by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), who received the honor last year for her work in defeating the SOPA copyright bill, and recently rallied in support of Swartz after his suicide in January. Swartz had faced charges under the decades-old Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for downloading a large amount of academic research articles from the JSTOR database at MIT. But despite JSTOR dropping its own charges, the government pursued a criminal case against Swartz which some evidence suggests was politically motivated and subject to prosecutorial overreach.

The White House has also begun pushing for open access

In January, Lofgren went on Reddit to introduce "Aaron's Law," a bill seeking to amend the over-broad CFAA statute so that innocuous computer activity which violates Terms of Service can no longer be the basis for federal prosecution. “Most people, when they look at what Aaron did, think it shouldn't be a crime at all," Lofgren told The Verge after announcing the bill, "certainly not a felony and certainly not [carrying] mandatory minimums." Since then, the White House has also begun pushing for open access, ordering last week that all federal agencies spending more than $100,000 annually on research and development draw up plans within the next six months to expedite the delivery of research to the public.

Swartz led the charge on many free speech and internet-related causes in his brief lifetime, notably drumming up opposition to the hugely controversial SOPA and PIPA copyright laws. In 2008, he penned a "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto," calling for civil disobedience against copyright laws which keep publicly-funded research behind publisher paywalls such as JSTOR and PACER.

The award will be accepted by Swartz's family this Friday at the Newseum in Washington, DC. Previous recipients include Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg and digital rights advocacy group The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Update: Rep. Zoe Lofgren has announced she will regretfully not be able to attend the ceremony, offering the following statement:

My apologies for not being able to be with you all today to pay tribute to a young man who was an outspoken advocate for the public’s “right to know” – and whose voice was silenced, tragically, too soon. It was a great honor to accept the 2012 James Madison Award last year and I had looked forward to participating in today’s ceremony honoring Aaron Swartz.

Aaron knew how important the Internet is as a platform for open communication and access to information.

From an early age, Aaron made significant contributions to free speech and technology. As a brilliant prodigy he helped develop the web feed format RSS, the Creative Commons, and the social news and information site Reddit. Each of these achievements was geared toward making information easily available to anyone that wants it.

Those achievements helped drive him to protect and promote the public’s “right to know.” He founded the group Demand Progress as a vehicle for his activism in favor of online free expression and against censorship of the Internet. This activism was crucial in the fight to stop SOPA.

Aaron worked to break down barriers to the public’s “right to know.” It was Aaron who opened up the complete bibliographic data for books held by the Library of Congress, making this information free on the Open Library.

He did the same with PACER, a federal court website that charges the public to access court records – all of which are public records, and free of copyright. To Aaron, the PACER action was a civil act to alert the public, and pressure the government, about the growing problem of restricting open access to public information.

When I read about Aaron’s passing, and as the details of the prosecution against him became more publically known, I was outraged. It made me think about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his time in a Birmingham jail. When you commit an act of civil disobedience, you do so with the knowledge that you could be punished. In Dr. King’s case, it was eleven days in jail. Aaron faced thirteen felony charges with the possibility of thirty-five years in prison.

It’s appropriate we honor Aaron today with the 2013 James Madison Award. We should also recommit ourselves to a bedrock principle that goes back to our country’s founding: that society has an interest in the free flow of ideas, information and commerce. That is why we have a free press, a nationwide postal system, public libraries, and publically supported educational opportunities that are meant to be ever-expanding and accessible.

The public domain has always been a vital source for creativity and innovation, and with the advent of the Internet, it is now more important than ever. The free flow of information and ideas is at the core of American ingenuity, and the emergence of digital technology empowers more and more of us to become creators in our own right.

By protecting and advancing the free flow of information, we can nurture opportunity and maximize the progress of science, the furthering of discovery, and the growth of the American economy. Thank you for honoring the work of this brilliant and passionate advocate. And thank you all for the work you do to ensure and advance the freedom of information in our society.