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Memorial service honors Swartz as activist, individual

At a memorial gathering for Aaron Swartz in New York City, the tech activist's death prompts tender recollections and fierce resolve.

Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013
Aaron Swartz, 1986-2013
Jacob Appelbaum

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of the main themes running through today's memorial service in New York City for tech activist Aaron Swartz was a call to action.

That call arose again and again from varied speakers, and was sounded as one of the final notes of the observance when master of ceremonies Ben Wikler, a political campaigner and friend of Swartz's, announced that the service had come to an end but added, "I hope it's clear this is just the beginning of everything we have to do."

Prior to Wikler's closing remarks, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman -- founder of, an organization devoted to corporate accountability, and Swartz's partner at the time of his suicide -- spelled out what some of that "everything" should be.

A fitting tribute to Swartz, she said, would be for "all of us to go out today and fight to make the world a better place." Specifically, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, the U.S. Attorney's office in Massachusetts -- which at the time of Swartz's death was prosecuting him for his alleged theft of millions of documents from the Jstor database of academic articles -- must be "held accountable" for what critics have said was its persecution of Swartz.

She said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Swartz accessed the database, "must be sure that it's never again complicit" in the sort of pressure put on Swartz by the government. She said the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a mid-1980s antihacking law, must be reformed so "this kind of power" over accused hackers could never again be handed to prosecutors. And she said the entire criminal justice system in the U.S. must be reformed in order to make it truly just.

Stinebrickner-Kauffman also said, in a remark that inspired a roar of approval from the hundreds gathered to remember Swartz -- a champion of open access to information -- that all academic research must be made freely available to everyone, everywhere.

Quinn Norton said she'd come to speak not about the "incredibly accomplished activist" or the "Internet saint," but about "a person who almost never did any of the damn dishes" and who sang to her daughter in the car.

Screenshot by Edward Moyer/CNET

'Hack the whole world'

More than one appeal for action was aimed at the tech community. Doc Searls -- an alumnus fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University -- spoke of how Swartz, a figurehead of the anti-SOPA movement, fought the system. Most geeks, he said, "tend to avoid the legal stuff...There are so few geeks that go that extra step to protect us...We need to do the work he started."

Roy Singham, chair of IT consultancy Thoughtworks and a major proponent of open-source software, spoke of Swartz's fear that the "wonderful world of technology" would be "usurped" and end up not being a tool of democracy. He contrasted Swartz with the heads of well-known and moneymaking tech companies, whom he called the "self-aggrandizing ego maniacs" who use technology for the benefit "of the 1 percent."

And Stinebrickner-Kauffman recalled a scene in which Swartz spoke before a group of programmers, wielding a picture of Harry Potter and telling them, with a snap of his fingers, that they could "do magic," that they could "make the world a better place with programming."

David Segal -- a politician, and executive director of online organizing group Demand Progress -- said Swartz wanted to change everything: "He was trying to hack the whole world -- in the best possible way."

'Another human being'

But there was room too, among the cries for action, for reflection on Swartz's everyday humanity. Writer and photographer Quinn Norton, a former partner of Swartz's, noted that with his death, Swartz had "left us and entered the realm of mythmaking." She wanted to be sure he was remembered in a multidimensional way, as someone who neglected to do the dishes, who sang to her daughter in the car, who "was another human being with all the flaws and glories that we all have."

At the same time, however, there seemed to be little doubt on the part of Quinn and the other speakers that the world had lost someone special. As Edward Tufte, the famous writer on information design, put it, Swartz was "marvelously and vigorously different" and there's a scarcity of that in today's world. Perhaps, Tufte said, "we can all be a little more different too."

A video of the service can be viewed on the "Remember Aaron Swartz" Web site.