Internet savant Aaron Swartz was found dead in his New York apartment on Friday from an apparent suicide. He was 26 years old.
At just 14, Swartz coauthored RSS, which helped transform the Web from a static to a dynamic destination. He later helped found Reddit, the massively popular bulletin board system that was acquired in 2006 by Condé Nast. He took his life just days before he was due to be tried for 13 felony counts stemming from his decision to download nearly 5 million articles from JSTOR, an online scholarly paper database, with the idea of making the information freely available.
Over the weekend, his family, friends, colleagues—and even JSTOR—took to the Internet to express their sadness over Swartz’s passing. Here’s what they had to say:
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.
Cory Doctorow, coeditor of Boing Boing
My friend Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday, Jan 11. He was 26. I got woken up with the news about an hour ago. I’m still digesting it—I suspect I’ll be digesting it for a long time—but I thought it was important to put something public up so that we could talk about it. Aaron was a public guy.
I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. 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.
Quinn Norton, journalist and blogger
“My Aaron Swartz, Whom I Loved.”
We used to have a fight about how much the internet would grieve if he died. I was right, but the last word you get in as the still living is a hollow thing, trailing off, as it does, into oblivion. I love Aaron. I loved Aaron. There are no words to can contain love, to cloth it in words is to kill it, to mummify it and hope that somewhere in the heart of a reader, they have the strength and the magic to resurrect it. I can only say I love him. That I will always love him, and that I known for years I would. Aaron was a boy, not big, who cast a shadow across the world. But for me, he will always be that person who made me love him. He was so frustrating, and we fought. But we fought like what we were: two difficult people who couldn’t escape loving each other.
On the last day I saw him, he grabbed me in the rain while my car was blocking the road and held me and said “I love you.” I don’t know if I said it back. Not that time. I had always told him. Sometimes I told him when he didn’t have it in him to say. I’d say “I love you, and you love me, too” and he would just hold me.
Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive
“Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies.”
Aaron Swartz, champion of the open world, committed suicide yesterday.
Working at the Internet Archive, Aaron was the architect and first coder of the OpenLibrary.org, a site to open the world of books to the Internet generation. He helped put public domain books on the site that had been locked up by libraries. Public access to the Public Domain, while seems obvious is not the position of many institutions, and this caused friction for Aaron.
As a volunteer, he helped make the RECAP system to offer free public access to public domain government court documents. He took the bold step of seeding this system by going to a public library to download the public domain and then uploaded the documents to the Internet Archive— this got him in trouble with the FBI. Now many millions of public domain documents have been used by over six million people for free, including researchers that could never have afforded the high fees to gain access.
Alex Stamos, CTO of Artemis Internet and an expert trial witness
“The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s ‘Crime’”
I did not know Aaron Swartz, unless you count having copies of a person’s entire digital life on your forensics server as knowing him. I did once meet his father, an intelligent and dedicated man who was clearly pouring his life into defending his son. My deepest condolences go out to him and the rest of Aaron’s family during what must be the hardest time of their lives.
If the good that men do is oft interred with their bones, so be it, but in the meantime I feel a responsibility to correct some of the erroneous information being posted as comments to otherwise informative discussions at Reddit, Hacker News and Boing Boing. Apparently some people feel the need to self-aggrandize by opining on the guilt of the recently departed, and I wanted to take this chance to speak on behalf of a man who can no longer defend himself. I had hoped to ask Aaron to discuss these issues on the Defcon stage once he was acquitted, but now that he has passed it is important that his memory not be besmirched by the ignorant and uninformed. I have confirmed with Aaron’s attorneys that I am free to discuss these issues now that the criminal case is moot.
I cannot speak as to all of the problems that contributed to Aaron’s death, but I do strongly believe that he did not deserve the treatment he received while he was alive. It is incumbent on all of us to figure out how to create some positive change out of this unnecessary tragedy. I’ll write more on that later. First I need to spend some time hugging my kids.
Lawrence Lessig, Harvard law professor and friend
“Prosecutor as Bully”
(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)
Since his arrest in January 2011, I have known more about the events that began this spiral than I have wanted to know. Aaron consulted me as a friend and lawyer. He shared with me what went down and why, and I worked with him to get help. When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend. Not a good enough friend, no doubt, but nothing was going to draw that friendship into doubt.
The billions of snippets of sadness and bewilderment spinning across the Net confirm who this amazing boy was to all of us. But as I’ve read these aches, there’s one strain I wish we could resist:
Please don’t pathologize this story.
Official Statement from JSTOR
We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit.
We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. 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.
We join those who are mourning this tragic loss.