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Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.

Of course Aaron was a legendary prodigy of a hacker in the sense of someone who can build anything out of anything. But that’s not what the media mean when they call him a hacker. They’re talking about his downloading of millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR, and there’s a slight chance they’re also thinking about his making available millions of pages of federal legal material as part of the RECAP project.

Neither the JSTOR nor RECAP downloads were cases of hacking in the sense of forcing your way into a system by getting around technical barriers. Framing Aaron’s narrative — his life as those who didn’t know him will remember it — as that of a hacker is a convenient untruth.

As Alex Stamos makes clear, there were no technical, legal, or contractual barriers preventing Aaron from downloading as many articles in the JSTOR repository as he wanted, other than the possibility that Aaron was trespassing, and even that is questionable. (The MIT closet he “broke into” to gain better access to the network apparently was unlocked.) Alex writes:

Aaron did not “hack” the JSTOR website for all reasonable definitions of “hack”. Aaron wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them. Aaron did not use parameter tampering, break a CAPTCHA, or do anything more complicated than call a basic command line tool that downloads a file in the same manner as right-clicking and choosing “Save As” from your favorite browser.

Clearly, this is not what JSTOR had in mind, but it is also something its contract permitted and its technology did nothing to prevent. As Brewster Kahle wrote yesterday:

When I was at MIT, if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company– but they called the cops on him. Cops. MIT used to protect us when we transgressed the traditional.

As for RECAP, the material Aaron made available was all in the public domain.

Aaron was not a hacker. He was a builder:


  • Aaron helped build the RSS standard that enabled a rush of information and ideas — what we blandly call “content” — to be distributed, encountered, and re-distributed. [source]


  • Aaron did the initial architecture of CreativeCommons.org, promoting a license that removes the friction from the reuse of copyrighted materials. [source]


  • Aaron did the initial architecture of the Open Library, a source of and about books open to the world. [source]


  • Aaron played an important role in spurring the grassroots movement that stopped SOPA, a law that would have increased the power of the Hollywood-DC alliance to shut down Web sites. [source]


  • Aaron contributed to the success of Reddit, a site now at the heart of the Net’s circulatory system for many millions of us.


  • Aaron contributed to Markdown, a much simpler way of writing HTML Web pages. (I use it for most of my writing.) [source]


  • Aaron created Infogami, software that made it easy for end-users to create Web sites that feature collaboration and self-expression. (Reddit bought Infogami.) [source]


  • Aaron wrote web.py, which he described as “a free software web application library for Python. It makes it easier to develop web apps in Python by handling a lot of the Web-related stuff for you. Reddit was built using it, for example.” (In that interview you’ll hear Aaron also talk about his disgust at the level of misogyny in the tech world.) [source]

  • Aaron founded Demand Progress and helped found the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, pioneering grassroots political groups. [source]


The mainstream media know that their non-technical audience will hear the term “hacker” in its black hat sense. We need to work against this, not only for the sake of Aaron’s memory, but so that his work is celebrated, encouraged, and continued.


Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."