Aaron Swartz, Online Activist and Reddit Cofounder, Dead at 26
This article has been updated.
When he was all of 14, Aaron Swartz co-authored the first specification of RSS, the code now ubiquitous across the internet that allows for the syndication of content.
He went on to lead a storied life of innovation, co-founding the wildly popular Web syndication site, Reddit, as well as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the organization known for its ardent activism on behalf of the candidacies of such progressive favorite as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. He also co-founded his own advocacy organization, Demand Progress.
In 2011, according to a post on Mashable, "Swartz was arrested for allegedly harvesting 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He appeared in court in Sept. 2012, pleading not guilty."
Mashable's Steve Shroeder also takes note of a 2007 blog post by Swartz in which he discusses an ongoing battle with migraine disease and depression. Both Swartz's attorney and his uncle have confirmed that he took his own life on January 11 in New York City.
Read more at Mashable.
UPDATE: Who knew that Swartz was Rick Perlstein's first-draft editor on the masterpiece that is Nixonland? Perlstein's elegy for Swartz is on his new blog at The Nation.
UPDATE: At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow fills in some of the backstory of Swartz's recent legal troubles:
The post-Reddit era in Aaron's life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he'd be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.
He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights. DemandProgress's work was one of the decisive factors in last year's victory over SOPA/PIPA, and that was only the start of his ambition.
Somewhere in there, Aaron's recklessness put him right in harm's way. Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles (many in the public domain), and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT, and though Aaron wasn't an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of that gang, and Aaron hadn't done anything with the articles (yet), so it seemed likely that it would just fizzle out.
Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories: the feds who'd tried unsuccessfully to nail him for the PACER/RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him; the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other, less credible theories. A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail.
This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time. That might be so. Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it's at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step.
UPDATE: The family and parnter of Aaron Swartz issued the following statement today.
Official Statement from the Family and Partner of Aaron Swartz
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.