01.13.13

Mourning Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist and Free Information Advocate

Aaron Swartz, Internet activist, co-creator of RSS and Reddit, was found dead on Friday from an apparent suicide. He was 26 years old.

This weekend the Internet mourned the loss of one of its folk heroes. Aaron Swartz, a co-creator of RSS and an early employee of popular link-sharing site Reddit, was found dead in his New York apartment on Friday. Collaborators, mentors, and friends—including co-editor of Boing Boing Cory Doctorow and professor and founder of Creative Commons Lawrence Lessig—wrote moving memorials to the genius who everyone seems to have concluded died far too young.

At age 14, Swartz helped create RSS, a method of syndicating content on the Web. Doctorow, who met him around this time, remembers him having the intellect of an adult. “In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.” Doctorow adds that he also had to remember Swartz needed to have adult supervision when he traveled.

Shortly thereafter he would go on to work with Lessig in an organization called Creative Commons, Swartz’s first foray into copyright law and the question of how “free” information should be. In 2005 Swartz started a company called Infogami that quickly merged with the popular news site Reddit. At the time, Reddit’s team was living in a three-bedroom apartment—Swartz told an interviewer he slept in a cupboard. He would leave shortly after the company was bought by Condé Nast in 2006.

In 2008, following his belief that information should be free, Swartz downloaded and released 20 million documents from a court database called PACER, about 20 percent of the database. The FBI mounted an investigation, but no charges were brought. At the time, Swartz is quoted as saying, “I think it’s pretty silly they go after people who use the library to try to get access to public court documents.”

Three years later, in 2011, Swartz wouldn’t be so lucky. In July of that year he gained illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription database of academic papers, through MIT’s networks and downloaded 4.8 million documents. At the time of his death Swartz was being prosecuted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for breaking into the JSTOR database and downloading documents. He was facing potential penalties of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Many, including Swartz’s family and girlfriend, believe that Swartz’s taking of his own life was related to these charges. Others believe that the charges did not match the crime, and that Swartz was being overprosecuted. In a statement, the family says his apparent suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” Alex Stamos, Swartz’s expert witness in the JSTOR trial, wrote a piece saying that Swartz’s actions did not justify the charges brought against him.

On Sunday, MIT president L. Rafael Reif wrote in a statement that “it pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.” He also announced that he’s asked Professor Hal Abelson to investigate MIT’s involvement in the case.

In a statement, the family says his apparent suicide was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

In addition to a torrent of posts remembering Swartz (dutifully collected here by Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOM, a technology website), there have been some moving tributes. On Reddit, the site he helped start, many users posted a simple period as a moment of silence a thread announcing the news of his death. These is also a new White House online petition calling for the removal of the U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz for overprosecuting Swartz’s case— although it’s not clear that Ortiz is to blame. But perhaps the most positive tribute of all, also started on Reddit, involves academics and researchers voluntarily uploading their copyright-protected articles and tweeting a link to the articles with the hashtag #pdftribute.

This past week, JSTOR announced that they would be making some journals available for to the public for limited free reading.