Dev

Web pioneer and activist Aaron Swartz dead at 26

Photo of Aaron Swartz, web pioneer and Internet activist

(Updated)

Aaron Swartz, a cofounder of Reddit, coinventor of RSS, and high-profile activist for open data, has committed suicide, according to MIT newspaper The Tech. He was 26.

The list of Swartz’s contributions to the Internet is long. At age 14, he helped write the RSS 1.0 specification. He was a cofounder of Reddit.* He worked with Internet legal activist Larry Lessig on the creation of Creative Commons. And he created the initial version of web.py, a Python-based framework for websites that is used by Reddit and many other sites.

Beyond his technical contributions, Swartz was also an opinionated writer and an active proponent of freedom of information. He drew attention in 2008 for downloading almost 20 million documents from PACER, a for-fee database of court records, and then distributing them to the public. While the documents in PACER are public domain, Swartz’s actions angered the managers of PACER because they gave the public a way to avoid its usual fees of 10 cents per page. That action drew an FBI investigation but, apparently, no charges.

Swartz got into more serious trouble in 2011 after using MIT’s network to download almost 5 million articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit that provides access to academic journals. That brought a federal indictment and a total of 13 felony counts against Swartz. He could have faced dozens of years in prison and up to $1 million in fines if convicted. His downloading script was aggressive enough that it brought down MIT’s network and prevented access to JSTOR for days at a time, the charges alleged.

It was this case that people close to him suggest was haunting Swartz in his last days. After Swartz turned over his hard drives, JSTOR decided not to pursue legal action. However, MIT apparently did not back off, and U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann continued to pursue the case. Lawrence lessage, an activist lawyer with a strong following in the technology community, penned a post yesterday calling it “Prosecutor as bully.”

Update 1/13/2013: The president of MIT has issued a statement on Swartz’s death.

In both the PACER and JSTOR cases, Swartz’s stated goal was to liberate information and make it more freely available.

He was also an activist who used his computer skills and devotion to public information to foster political change, most recently through Demand Progress, a nonprofit that he founded. And he was a prominent opponent of SOPA, a draconian anti-piracy act that the U.S. Congress considered and then rejected under political pressure in 2011. See below for a video from May, 2012, where Swartz explains “how we stopped SOPA.”

Cory Doctorow’s eulogy for Aaron Swartz on BoingBoing does a better job of explaining who this man was, and why he mattered to so many people, than anything else I’ve read this morning.

I never met him, but I am sad this morning just the same. His death is a loss to anyone who uses the Internet.

* UPDATE 10am: Swartz’s contribution to Reddit is in dispute. His startup, Infogami, merged with Reddit; both startups were in the first class of Y Combinator companies.

UPDATE 6:50pm: Swartz’s family issued the following statement earlier 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.

Additionally, the statement noted that a funeral will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 15. Remembrances and donations can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com.

Photo credit: Sage Ross/Flickr


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