Aaron Swartz, programmer and Internet activist was found dead in his apartment Friday, an apparent suicide, according to multiple media reports. Swartz's death at 26 comes two years after Cambridge police arrested him for breaking and entering into MIT, an event that left him facing decades in prison.
At 14. Swartz invented RSS - Really Simple Syndication - the technology that allows this web site, along with many others, to include snippets of content from other web sites. He co-founded Creative Commons, a movement and legal structure that seeks to use copyright as a means to enhance the sharing of information and culture. Swartz went on to found a company that merged with Reddit, being credited with helping to create what's one of the most popular sites on the Internet.
In later years, Swartz became an Internet activist. His first target was PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records, an electronic public access service that allows users to obtain case and docket information from federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts. These documents are created at the expense of US taxpayers and legally in the public domain. Yet, due to historical accidents, citizens need to pay to gain access. Because the articles are in the public domain, once they are outside of PACER, they can be distributed freely. Swartz, using free library access, downloaded 2,700,000 items from PACER, prompting an FBI investigation. Swartz, of course, used the Freedom of Information Act to see his own FBI file in order to understand just how serious the investigation was. In the end, no charges were filed.
But his activities two years ago landed him in serious legal jeopardy. Swartz's target this time was JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals and books. JSTOR, like PACER, charges access fees to libraries, access fees that many libraries are struggling with. Activists contend that JSTOR's content consists largely of the product of Federal research grants and that those research products should be freely available. According to the subsequent indictments, Swartz was alleged to have broken in to an MIT networking closet and hidden a laptop computer there in order to download JSTOR's content. To the outrage of many activists, the Federal government chose to treat as a major computer crime, indicting Swartz on 13 felony charges including Wire Fraud, Unlawfully Obtaining Information from a Protected Computer, and Recklessly Damaging a Protected Computer. Harvard University's Lawrence Lessig, Swartz's friend and mentor, called this bullying, writing in his own eulogy of Swartz:
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
Swartz was an extraordinary intellect, from examining the use of eminent domain in the cartoon movie Wreck-It Ralph, being the first reader of Rick Perlstein's history of conservative politics in America Nixonland, and wondering about about industrial history of candy making in Cambridge. And, when he lived in Cambridge in 2009, he offered his own list of City Council endorsements, in numerical order.
Swartz, presciently, wrote his own public Last Will and Testament in 2002, entitled "If I get hit by a truck." And, in staying true to his values, it says, in part: "I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from aaronsw.com."
Picture courtesy selfagency from flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.