Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old technology wunderkind, hung himself on Friday, Jan. 10. Swartz was a co-founder of the incredibly popular social-sharing site Reddit, but had struggled in recent years after being relentlessly pursued by the U.S. attorney general's office for allegedly downloading millions of files illegally from MIT computers. In the days since Swartz's death, the internet has been consumed with and outraged by this tragic tale. Here's what you should know:
Who was Aaron Swartz?
One of the greatest minds of the internet generation. A talented programmer and "hero of the free culture movement," Swartz is one of the co-creators of RSS (he was 14 at the time) and a co-founder of Reddit. He helped design the architecture for Creative Commons (used on sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and more), and co-founded the internet activist group DemandProgress. Swartz's voice was also instrumental in striking down SOPA, the controversial anti-piracy bill defeated in early 2012. According to Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, Swartz was "always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?"
Why did he kill himself?
Swartz had a history of inner-demons, and made no secret about his battles with depression. Over the course of his short career, the young activist also made enemies in high places — most notably the U.S. government. Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow recalls one of Swartz's more prolific crusades against PACER, a database for court documents that Swartz believed should be available for all to read freely:
The post-Reddit era in Aaron's life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he single-handedly liberated 20 percent of U.S. 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. [Boing Boing]
Then, unfortunately for Swartz, 2011 happened.
What happened in 2011?
Swartz was arrested for illegally accessing computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he wasn't a student, to gain access to over 4 million scholarly papers kept by JSTOR, which subscribers can use to download scholarly papers and journals. Swartz allegedly hid a laptop in a computer closet and intended to liberate the files for anyone with an internet connection. JSTOR said it would drop any civil claims after being pressured by critics ranging from hacker groups to prominent scholars, but government prosecutors insisted on pursuing Swartz. The New York Times reports:
At his trial, which was to begin in April, he faced the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison, punishments that friends and family say haunted him for two years and led to his suicide. Mr. Swartz was a flash point in the debate over whether information should be made widely available. On one side were activists like Mr. Swartz and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Students for Free Culture. On the other were governments and corporations that argued that some information must be kept private for security or commercial reasons. [New York Times]
Several observers noted that the penalty was unusually harsh for a crime that didn't injure anybody or claim any victims, and many felt they were trying to make an example of Swartz. Either way, the case weighed heavily on the young activist. Journalist Quinn Norton, in a heartbreaking tribute essay detailing her intimate relationship with Swartz, says she "tried to take care of him while he was being destroyed, from inside and out":
I struggled so hard, but not as hard as he did. I told him, time and again, that this was his 20s. It would be better in his 30s. Just wait. Please, just hold on. [Quinn Norton]
What does Swartz's family say?
While Swartz did not leave a suicide note, his family and partner say that his death "is not simply a personal tragedy," but a "product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." At an Aaron Swartz tribute site, they write: "Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death."
What does MIT say?
In a statement emailed to the press on Sunday, MIT president Rafael Reif promised to investigate the charges. "I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many," he said. "It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy." Hours after Reif's statement, hacktivist group Anonymous defaced the university's website, which was unavailable intermittently on Sunday. The group called the prosecution "a grotesque miscarriage of justice" and "a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Why isn't 'Arkansas' pronounced like 'Kansas'?
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
- Internet piracy isn't killing Hollywood
- It's time for the police to rethink 'shoot-to-kill'
- This 1,600-year-old Viking war game is still awesome
- Is the Christian music industry liberalizing on gay marriage?
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- Congress' craven approach toward the war on ISIS
Subscribe to the Week