Aaron Swartz, the brilliant young software programmer and Internet activist who inspired awe and reverence from leading figures in the technology world, died in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, his family said in a statement. New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled the death a suicide by hanging. Swartz was 26 years old.
Swartz’s death was confirmed to the newspaper by his uncle, Michael Wolf, and attorney, Elliot R. Peters.
A prodigy, Swartz was behind some of the Internet’s defining moments, soaring to heights that many developers only dream of.
At the same time, he was plagued by legal problems arising from his aggressive activism, and he was also known to suffer depression, a personal matter that he publicly revealed on his blog.
A passionate advocate for social justice, Swartz founded the group Demand Progress, which played a crucial role in convincing the U.S. Congress to back down from controversial anti-piracy legislation last year.
Swartz had long lived with depression and a host of physical ailments, which made his accomplishments that much more astonishing. Barely a teenager, he co-developed the RSS feed, before becoming one of the earliest minds behind Reddit.
Swartz spent the last two years fighting federal hacking charges. In July 2011, prosecutor Scott Garland working under U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz charged Swartz with four counts of felony misconduct – charges that were deemed outrageous by internet experts who understood the case, and wholly unnecessary by the parties Swartz was accused of wronging.
Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Swartz pleaded not guilty. His trial was set to begin this April.
According to the Time, in 2008, Swartz wrote a program to download some 20 million pages of legal documents from PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, which charges 10 cents per page for access.
Working with other activists, Swartz sought to make the documents available to the public at no charge. The government cracked down on this effort but did not file charges.
However, on October 5, 2009, he posted online his FBI file that he apparently requested from the agency. He redacted the FBI agents’ names and his personal information, he said.
As the Huff Post reports, in the fall of 2010, Swartz downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR, which provides such articles free of charge to students and researchers.
As a faculty member at Harvard University, Swartz had a JSTOR account, and downloaded the documents over the course of a few weeks from a library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His activities ultimately shut down JSTOR’s servers briefly, and eventually resulted in MIT’s library being blocked by JSTOR for a few days.
JSTOR didn’t pursue civil charges against Swartz for breach of contract, even though it could have. But the government pressed on, interpreting Swartz’s actions as a federal crime, alleging mass theft, damaged computers and wire fraud, and suggesting that Swartz stood to gain financially.
A tribute to Swartz, written by his friend Cory Doctorow, said:
“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.”
Late on Saturday, Swartz’s family issued a statement mourning the loss of their loved one’s “curiosity, creativity” and “commitment to social justice.” They also put some of the blame for Swartz’s death on federal prosecutors, reports the Huff Post.
His funeral will be held Tuesday at a synagogue in Highland Park.