The Story of Aaron Swartz and What Entrepreneurs Should Learn From Him

Aaron Swartz was, in addition to being a young man of conscience, a poster child for the terms “computer whiz” and “child prodigy”. He was still just a child of 12 when he created the Info Network, a forerunner of Wikipedia, and by the age of 13, he’d already become a co-founder of Reddit and one of the authors of Creative Commons(1).

Aaron didn’t want to use his talents just to make money, but to make the world a better place by increasing people’s ability to communicate with one another, to exchange valuable ideas and information. His belief that knowledge should be freely shared with humanity resulted in his arrest after downloading scholarly articles and journals from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Tragically, on January 11th, 2013, at the tender age of 26, and facing 35 years in prison and over a million dollars in fines, he took his own life. His death was a blow to humanity as well as the information technology industry and entrepreneurs worldwide but the contributions he made to today’s young entrepreneurs are invaluable.

The Story of Aaron Swartz and What Entrepreneurs Should Learn From Him

One of those contributions was in raising public awareness of the extent to which knowledge is power and the concentration of that power in the hands of too few is dangerous for a free society. It’s also dangerous for the free trade which entrepreneurs depend on, to be stifled when that power corrupts and leads to unfair business practices and prevent competition in the marketplace. As a successful entrepreneur, you too should recognize the dangers that a large power can wield when information and free trade are locked down. Big corporations like the ones Aaron fought used connections in the government to hold their monopolies on information like those scholarly journals.
Another of his contributions to the world of business was causing widespread recognition of the need for laws governing internet commerce. According to U.S. Department of Commerce statistics, internet commerce accounted for 80.3 billion dollars in sales in the first quarter of 2015 alone (2). He also stressed the need for such laws to be applied equally to large corporations to avoid conflicts of interest and the further monopolization of knowledge.

Largely due to his efforts to change the laws he was prosecuted for violating, the controversial SOPA, or Stop Online Piracy Act, was defeated by voters. Swartz also argued that scholarly and academic works that were funded wholly, or in part by the public in the form of tax dollars should be made available to the public for free.

In short, he presented an ethical argument against private profit from public investment (3). Since there is no greater threat to entrepreneurs than unfair competition, the world of business is indebted to him for these hard-earned lessons. As a startup entrepreneur, you know the unfair head starts some companies have in certain industries. Even if you’re prepared with an online master’s degree in business administration, a solid background in your field, and recommendations from leaders in the industry, small business is too often a pawn in these larger corporations’ games. Pay attention to Aaron’s example.

There is hope, Aaron’s sacrifice for getting access to online journals made it possible for Jack Andraka’s revolutionary discovery for a better pancreatic cancer test (4). Making it possible to access online information, paved the way for better research and more discoveries. Your business too should strive to stay true to the vision of a free world.