TROUBLED GENIUS

01.13.13

Aaron Swartz, 26, Programmer, Outspoken Advocate of Free Information

The prodigious computer genius, who took his own life Friday at age 26, remains an enigma to those unaware of his many projects. A look at the accomplishments and challenges of the programming legend, from Reddit to Demand Progress.

Who was Aaron Swartz?

A programming legend since he was barely a teen, Swartz is credited with changing the way information reached readers across the word—a legacy he embraced but that would later bring about legal woes. At age 14, Swartz co-developed RSS, a system of constantly updating subscription feeds that remains hugely influential today. He later was instrumental in the creation of Reddit, the hugely popular user-generated site that has come to define modern content online.

An outspoken proponent of free information, Swartz drafted the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” which agitated against the use of pay walls to keep information from the public. He also helped start Creative Commons, Open Library, Watchdog.net, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, to name a few of his projects. In 2010 he founded Demand Progress, which started as a campaign against two Internet-censorship bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, and later expanded to include a variety of grassroots petitions.

“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,” his family wrote in a statement. “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.”

How did he die?

Swartz was found dead at age 26 in his New York apartment, apparently having hanged himself, according to his family. His uncle Michael Wolf told The New York Times that his nephew had written about struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide in the past. In 2007 Swartz wrote a blog post titled “Sick,” in which he disclosed some details about his ailment. “Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad,” he wrote. “Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.” He had been fired by Condé Nast, which had bought Reddit, around that same time, and he had written a suicide-style note on his blog that made Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian worried enough to call the police and ask them to break into his apartment.

What was the legal case against him?

At the time of his death, Swartz was embroiled in a sticky legal situation. He was being charged with 13 felony counts for downloading nearly 5 million articles from online scholarly library JSTOR, a subscription-based service that distributes literary and scientific journals. In 2011, with the idea of providing public access to the service’s trove of articles, he broke into computer networks at MIT and downloaded 4.8 million documents onto his hard drive. JSTOR decided not to press charges, but a U.S. attorney continued to pursue the case. Swartz appeared in court in September and entered a plea of not guilty. The trial was set for April, and he faced 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines if found guilty.

“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.”

Alex Stamos, the expert witness in Swartz’s case, wrote a blog post evaluating the legal case against Swartz, berating the government for its handling of the situation. “Aaron Swartz was not the super hacker breathlessly described in the Government’s indictment and forensic reports, and his actions did not pose a real danger to JSTOR, MIT or the public,” Stamos wrote, saying that what Swartz did was more inconsiderate than criminal and hardly worthy of a 35-year sentence looming over his head. “Aaron’s death demands a great deal of soul searching by the US Attorney who decided to massively overcharge this young man and the MIT administrators who decided to involve Federal law enforcement.”

JSTOR released an official statement on Swartz’s death, praising his accomplishments and expressing grief. “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”