Reddit founder Aaron Swartz died 10 years ago, but his internet warning remains urgent

Aaron Swatz could have picked up on a story often seen in Silicon Valley: at 19, the young programming prodigy became a millionaire after selling the income, a company of which he is co-founder. However, he abandoned the life of a “startup artist” to become the leading voice of his generation against the power of the big Internet companies – an unusual and tragic decision.

On January 11, 2013, Swartz was found dead at the age of 26 after leading a free circulation of scholarly papers litigation against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The episode brought a sad and premature end to Swartz’s career, but the warnings he left about internet policing are still timely and urgent.

One of the main points Swartz made was that the Internet could not be the domain of a few companies. At that time, technology giants such as Google And Facebookthey were neither as powerful nor wealthy as they are today, but they have already indicated that they could be a threat to a decentralized internet.

“It’s not a question of who has access, it’s who has control over how information finds people,” Swartz said of controlling big tech companies. He feared that the giants might not only limit but also moderate what people consume online.

Perhaps, Swartz had not imagined that digital platforms could participate in events such as the January 8 coup in Brasilia. But he feared that Internet companies acted as the main information intermediaries and public organization: for him, access to information was above all a political duty, which could not be in the hands of companies with their own interests.

“Today, this concern is combined with the dissemination and viralization power of a platform’s communication. And this is not only a problem of the platforms, but also of what is behind the radicalization in the networks and points of diffusion of these extremist ideas”, says Rafael Zanatta, executive director of Data Privacy Brasil, when Stage.

In other words, Swartz believed it essential that everyone should have access to information produced by scientists, politicians and authorities, as well as public documents. The idea was to provide input so that people could have critical thinking based on all possible knowledge being produced – something that seems to work in opposition to the current Internet bubbles, where questionable sources of information endlessly feed into pre-existing beliefs.

It’s not a question of who has access, it’s who has control over how the information finds people.”

Aaron Swatz

One feature of the Internet today that reinforces Swartz’s fears of corporate control of the Internet is the use of algorithms for content care. In the business model, the more the platform is used by the user, the more revenue is generated. In this way, algorithms not only serve as information-controlling tools, they are also tools for keeping people engaged with the platform, even if that means hateful content and misinformation.

THE Twitterfor example, it is one of the companies with a platform powered by curation algorithms — and still has the aggravating circumstance of having joined a personal project of billionaire Elon Musk. Other platforms like Facebook, Instagram And Tick ​​tock — the forerunner of over-customizing algorithms — adopted the same logic to keep users as long as possible on small screens.

Before such systems became sophisticated, Swartz already had a solution up its sleeve. The programmer excelled in the co-creation of the RSS protocol (Really Simple Syndication)., a link distribution tool. The tool was designed to be an independent content aggregator. Thus, people could select and share links so as not to depend on the platform. That is, there was no company that controlled metrics like relevance, audience, or engagement.

Aaron warned, as early as 2010, about the monopoly of big tech companies Photography: Disclosure

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“Currently, there is a link between content and platform, which makes you stuck on one type of curation. The ability to dismember content and platform is something that underpins the RSS project,” says Rafael Evangelista, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp).

“Many of the problems we have today in relation to social networks, disinformation, the attention economy, may have some path of change with what the RSS project had at its root,” Evangelista explains. The best known service that used RSS was Google player, deactivated in July 2013 to the chagrin of a group of users who are still very active today. It seems to be no coincidence that the decline of protocol coincides with the rise of social networks as a moderating force on the networks.

Currently, the Internet is experiencing a new moment of decentralization debate: big tech companies are under the radar of regulators in several countries. And some bet on it web3a new network configuration that focuses on direct communication between users and validation technologies such as blockchaincan disempower giants.

There is, however, a long way to go for this transition of power. “The problem is centralization: from knowledge to internet infrastructure. It is valid to continue to question the monopoly, because the advantage of the Internet has been to give everyone a voice,” explains Isabela Bagueros, executive director of the TOR project, an anonymous open source network. “We are experiencing crises in this sense, because the logic begins to be influenced by ads and the need for user growth”.

Although it seems utopian, Swartz’s vision of the Internet has left concrete results in the real world. In Brazil, his work inspired the construction of the Civil framework of the Internet And General Data Protection Act — Citizens now have rights in the digital environment. Furthermore, it has paved the way for the request for transparency and information, which has been translated into laws such as l Right of access to information.

Currently, a number of national entities are trying to carry out digital rights activism. Bodies like the Coding Rights, Data Privacy Brazil, Internet Lab and the Coalition Collective Rights on the Net there are some who defend access to information and the right to laws that protect individuals’ online lives. The country, however, still has the Aaron Swartz Institute Brazilfounded in 2022 with permission from programmer’s mother, seeking to connect activists in the free internet movement – Swartz’s life portrayed in documentary The Internet Boy – The Aaron Swartz Story.

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“It’s hard to say exactly what Aaron would do today, but perhaps he would help develop more mechanisms and tools to make the Internet a tool for civic participation, civil society lobbying, and political demand,” the institute says at the Stage.

Indeed, for those who have remained, the search for a different internet is the main fuel. “It’s possible for companies to continue making money without needing all that clout. Aaron questioned himself a lot, he always wanted to understand if it was possible to change, to do things differently and this is still the spirit today,” says Isabela.

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