Aaron Swartz, Online Activist and Reddit Cofounder, Dead at 26

Hounded by prosecutors and battling illness, the internet genius took his own life.

January 12, 2013  |  

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When he was all of 14, Aaron Swartz co-authored the first specification of RSS, the code now ubiquitous across the internet that allows for the syndication of content.

He went on to lead a storied life of innovation, co-founding the wildly popular Web syndication site, Reddit, as well as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the organization known for its ardent activism on behalf of the candidacies of such progressive favorite as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. He also co-founded his own advocacy organization, Demand Progress.

In 2011, according to a post on Mashable, “Swartz was arrested for allegedly harvesting 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He appeared in court in Sept. 2012, pleading not guilty.”

Mashable’s Steve Shroeder also takes note of a 2007 blog post by Swartz in which he discusses an ongoing battle with migraine disease and depression. Both Swartz’s attorney and his uncle have confirmed that he took his own life on January 11 in New York City.

Read more at Mashable.

UPDATE: Who knew that Swartz was Rick Perlstein’s first-draft editor on the masterpiece that is Nixonland? Perlstein’s elegy for Swartz is on his new blog at The Nation.

UPDATE: At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow fills in some of the backstory of Swartz’s recent legal troubles:

The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. 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.

He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights. DemandProgress’s work was one of the decisive factors in last year’s victory over SOPA/PIPA, and that was only the start of his ambition.


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.