Aaron Swartz, 1986–2013

The Internet activist who fought for open access

Aaron Swartz was committed to the free flow of information—so committed, in fact, that he was willing to risk 35 years in prison for allegedly stealing almost 5 million documents from Journal Storage (JSTOR), a not-for-profit academic database, in the belief that they should be freely available. Last week, just under three months before he was due to go to trial, Swartz ended his own life. He was 26.

Swartz wrote his first Web application—an online encyclopedia similar to Wikipedia—as a 13-year-old, said the Los Angeles Times. “High school bored him,” and he left after his freshman year to attend community college. At 14, he helped write the software for RSS feeds, a popular tool that lets users aggregate updated online content. He studied sociology at Stanford, but left after a year. “I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere,” he later said. He moved to Cambridge, Mass., where he formed a company that turned into the online news and media hub Reddit, which was sold to Condé Nast in 2006 for around $5 million.

Swartz’s programming “brought him a fair amount of money,” said The New Yorker, and he began pursuing causes closer to his heart—in particular “making freely available information that in his opinion ought to be.” In 2008 he wrote a program that “liberated” almost 20 million pages of federal court records for which users were supposed to pay “a dime or so per page.” The government opened a dossier on him, but did not file charges. Swartz “went a step further” in 2010, when he allegedly stole 4.8 million academic documents from JSTOR by plugging his laptop into servers at MIT. “He was caught, and arrested.”

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Swartz gave the files back, said The New York Times, and although JSTOR declined to pursue the case further, the federal government did—charging Swartz with a total of 13 felony counts, including wire fraud and computer fraud, and threatening him with more than three decades behind bars. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar,” said Carmen M. Ortiz, the U.S. attorney pursuing the charges. The impending trial weighed heavily on the young activist, said close friend Quinn Norton. “It pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.”

Those who blame federal prosecutors for Swartz’s premature death should remember that “suicide is often the result of many factors,” said Slate.com, and the young man admitted struggling with depression. But even though he is gone, “the ideas he cared about aren’t.” The progressive organization he co-founded, Demand Progress, remains active, and the fight for online freedom of access will continue. “There might be no better way to honor Aaron Swartz’s memory than continuing the dialogue.”

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