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Aaron Swartz’s short life was absorbed in a cyber world

Harnessed rare skill, drew strength from ideals

Aaron Swartz, who faced indictment on hacking charges, sought to break barriers to free-flowing information.Noah Berger /REUTERS/2008 file

Aaron Swartz evolved from computer prodigy to cyber activist gradually, fueled by an insatiable curiosity and an omnipresent cause.

“From the youngest age imaginable, about 13 years, he had done one thing: work to meet his ideal of what the world should be like,” said Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a father-figure and friend to Swartz for more than a decade.

Lessig and others who knew him best say Swartz grew into a multifaceted intellectual. He not only could build open-source software to help grass-roots organizers launch campaigns, he also immersed himself in reading history — recently on the US Mint — and delivered a trenchant critique on his website about political and economic theory in the “Batman” film trilogy.


Swartz, who took his own life Friday at age 26 while facing federal charges for hacking into an archive system on MIT’s network, never sought riches or fame, they said. “He did nothing for money. He did everything for changing the world,” Lessig said.

Yet, even some supporters say they did not always agree with Swartz’s means in his quest to ensure information be free and open to all on the Internet.

Swartz was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics when the alleged hacking took place.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s girlfriend, said even as Swartz faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for the theft of millions of scholarly articles from MIT, he turned his attention to defeating two antipiracy bills: the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, which critics said would give the government too much power to censor the Internet.

Swartz had also lately taken up unfair sentencing practices in the war on drugs. Swartz interviewed experts and read policy papers, trying to generate solutions.

“He was so happy when he was working on that, so alive and energetic,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. “That was the kind of thing he wanted to be doing. He didn’t want to be asking people for money to be funding his legal defense.’’


Swartz, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, was 14 when he helped build RSS, computer software that allows for the distribution of updated Web pages to other Internet sites. The software is considered a major development for the Internet.

Four years later, he merged his start-up with Reddit.com, a popular site that allows users to vote for their favorite news stories of the day, and he dropped out of Stanford University.

Swartz was a slip of a man who moved to New York just after the federal indictment for his hacking at MIT. For the last nine months, he developed grass-roots organizing software at Thoughtworks.com, a development company that believes in bringing about societal change through information technology.

Roy Singham, founder and chairman of Thoughtworks.com, said Swartz was his “intellectual soulmate.”

“He and I share a deep emotional and intellectual rebellion against social injustice,” Singham said on his way to LaGuardia Airport in New York, where he planned to fly to Illinois for Swartz’s funeral on Tuesday.

Singham said Swartz understood there were times intellectual property should be protected — as with his company clients.

“He was quite thoughtful about what constituted intellectual property,” Singham said. Material created by academics who were not paid or were funded by taxpayer money, he explained, should be accessible to the public without cost.


Swartz was known to suffer from depression, writing in 2007 on his blog Raw Thought that he had been sick, suffering from a depressed mood, and more recently writing a series of “pieces on getting better at life” that he called Raw Nerve.

But Lessig pleaded in his own online post: “Please don’t pathologize this story.”

“Of course he was depressed,” Lessig said later during a telephone interview, his voice brimming with emotion. “But, was he depressed for a real reason or was this pathological? I think it was a real reason.’’

On Friday, Stinebrickner-Kauffman said, Swartz remained in bed in the Brooklyn apartment they shared, saying he was tired.

“I really tried everything I could think of to get him out of bed,” she said by phone. “I opened the curtains, played music, tickled him, and eventually it got to the point of throwing water on him.”

But Swartz told her he planned to rest for the remainder of the day.

“I was really worried about him. He was in a really difficult place,” said Stinebrickner-Kauffman, 31, who had been Swartz’s girlfriend for about a year and a half. She went to work but was preoccupied and thinking about Swartz.

She texted him several ideas during the day, but he did not respond. Sometime during the day, he hanged himself.

Mary Carmichael and Michael Farrell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.