How Aaron Swartz Fought For Government Transparency
"Transparency can be a powerful thing, but not in isolation. So, let’s stop passing the buck by saying our job is just to get the data out there and it’s other people’s job to figure out how to use it. Let’s decide that our job is to fight for good in the world." —Aaron Swartz
The brilliant hacker and activist Aaron Swartz, who tragically died last week at the age of 26, is perhaps best known for his work on the early days of Reddit, for helping lead the fight against SOPA, and for helping craft groundbreaking innovations like RSS and Creative Commons.
But what drove all those achievements was a relentless curiosity and a passionate mind, and what's less known is how committed he was to government transparency and openness.
"Hi. I live in Cambridge and file a lot of FOIA/PA requests," Aaron emailed me, by way of introduction, in the Fall of 2010. I had just founded MuckRock News, an open government organization that helps the public file Freedom of Information Act requests, which we then report on when we receive results. "Any chance I can get a MuckRock account?"
He could: He was officially MuckRock user 70, though probably one of the first dozen to actually file a request. And he used it regularly, with eyes open for the topical and mundane, the personal and political.
He was among the first to request photos from the killing of Osama Bin Laden. He requested information on how the United States Secret Service requested and accessed Google's data.
The requests he appeared most interested in appeared to be records related to ICE domain seizures. Mike Masnick at TechDirt wrote about the results: The redactions were so severe as to make the documents almost "useless".
At the time of his death, I was working with Aaron on appealing the redactions and fee assessments.
Aaron also filed several requests relating to the federal investigations into himself. The Department of Justice claimed it had no responsive documents in relation to his attempt to "open" the PACER database, the tax-supported database of American case law, which nonetheless operates on a fee-for-service basis. In 2009, Aaron took advantage of PACER giving libraries free access to its service by downloading approximately 20% of the database.
The FBI never pressed charges (because he had broken no law) but the Executive Office for United States Attorneys withheld in full 72 pages on him regarding that same case.
For many of these requests, Aaron would literally wait years for a response, only to receive cryptic rejections or no response at all. For every time he raised the ire of federal investigators, and ultimately prosecutors, he had, indeed, taken the proscribed path dozens or hundreds of times.
If Aaron's methods and aims in freeing information were "radical," then they were reactions to deep-rooted, systematic failures that often demanded radical responses.
Today, as a small way to remember Aaron, and to help continue his legacy of agitation, MuckRock will offer free requests, for everyone. Let us know what information you would like to see free, and how Aaron impacted you.
Together, let's continue to fight for good in the world.
Michael Morisy is the founder of MuckRock. He can be reached at Michael@MuckRock.com.