As you may know, Aaron Swartz, who developed RSS 1.0 and founded Infogami, which merged with reddit in the popular social news site’s early days, was found dead after hanging himself at 26 years old.
Swartz had been in some legal trouble, after being arrested in 2011 for allegedly downloading millions of documents from JSTOR with intent to distribute them. It’s looking more and more likely that this incident ultimately led to his suicide, with Swartz losing hope just days before killing himself. The Wall Street Journal reports that his hopes for a deal with federal prosecutors, who threatened to put him in prison for 30 years, fell apart before his suicide.
According to the report, Swartz’s lawyer had initially discussed a plea bargain with Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann back in the fall, but was told that Swartz would have to plead guilty on every count, and that the government would insist on prison time. When the two lawyers spoke just this past Wednesday, the situation remained unchanged. The Journal also spoke with Swartz’s girlfriend:
With the government’s position hardening, Mr. Swartz realized that he would have to face a costly, painful and public trial, his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said in an interview Sunday. The case was draining his money, and he would need to ask for help financing his defense; two of his friends had recently been subpoenaed in the case. Both situations distressed him, she said.
A Tumblr has been set up to honor Swartz’s memory, and provide a way for his family and friends to share their memories. On that, an official statement from his family and partner was released. That says:
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.
Swartz had been using an MIT network for his alleged downloading of JSTOR articles, and MIT put out a letter to its community on Sunday about its role in the ordeal. In that, L. Rafael Reif writes:
Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.
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. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.
I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.
Aaron Swartz was known for a lot of things, and among them were his contributions to the anti-SOPA/PIPA movement, a cause for which he founded DemandProgress.org. Here’s a keynote from Swartz at F2C2012, called “How We Stopped SOPA” (via BusinessInsider on YouTube):
Lead image: DemandProgress.org