Digital activist and Reddit Co-Founder, Aaron Swartz, committed suicide on Friday. Swartz, a strong proponent of Internet freedom, was also founder of DemandProgress.org and a co-creator of the RSS 1.0 standard. There has been a lot written today about his death, including a eulogy titled “RIP, Aaron Swartz” by Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, who salutes his “friend” and gives a detailed account his life and work. It is really worth a read as it provides insight into the life, work and troubles of one of the architects of the Internet society. Here are a few takeaways:
Writes Doctorow: “Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber. The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking.”
Believing that people had a right to public information and documents, Swartz spent significant time and money acquiring data and putting it into the public domain. Writes Doctorow: “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.”
In 2011, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts charged Swartz with computer fraud for for taking 4 million documents from JSTOR, an online aggregator of scientific journals. He plead not guilty, but the matter did not go away. Writes Doctorow: “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.”
Swartz’ family and partner published a statement about his death saying that Swartz committed suicide by hanging himself on Friday and blaming “[d]ecisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT” as contributing to his death. Here is the statement in its entirety:
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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Consistent with Swartz’ views about Internet freedom and the importance of sharing of information and the public domain: The photo used in this article by Flickr user elizabethbw is being used under Creative Commons license. It is also worth noting that Cory Doctorow has waived, to the extent possible under law, all copyright and related or neighboring rights to “RIP, Aaron Swartz.”