Aaron Swartz, RSS pioneer and Internet activist, dies at 26
Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped to develop a computer code that provided a format for delivering regularly changing Web content and in later life became an unwavering crusader to make that information free of charge, died in New York on Friday, a family member said.
Swartz was 26, and his death was due to suicide. His body was found by his girlfriend in his apartment in New York, his uncle, Michael Wolf, said Saturday. He had apparently hanged himself, Wolf said.
As a 14-year-old, Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous software that allows people to subscribe to information from the Internet. But as he reached adulthood, Swartz became even more of an Internet folk hero to many because of his online activism to make many Internet files open to the public for free.
In July 2011, he was indicted in Boston on federal charges that he illegally gained access to JSTOR, a subscription-only online service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloaded 4.8 million articles and other documents, nearly the entire library.
At the time of his death, Swartz was still facing charges in that case related to wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, which carried a penalty, if convicted, of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
‘‘Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,’’ said Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Swartz ‘‘a complicated prodigy,’’ and said ‘‘graybeards approached him with awe.’’
Wolf, his uncle, said that he would remember Swartz as a young man who ‘‘looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.’’
The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, previously reported Swartz’s death.
Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organizations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Swartz formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social justice issues — including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill known as SOPA, the Stop Piracy Act.
But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on PACER — or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like Carl Malamud, the founder of public.resource.org, have long argued that such documents should be free since they are produced at public expense. Joining Malamud’s efforts to make the documents public by posting legally obtained files to the Internet for free access, he wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.
The government abruptly shut down the free library program, and Malamud feared that legal trouble might follow, even though he felt they had violated no laws. As he recalled in a newspaper account of the events, ‘‘I immediately saw the potential for overreaction by the courts.’’
He recalled telling Swartz, ‘‘You need to talk to a lawyer. I need to talk to a lawyer.’’
Swartz recalled, ‘‘I had this vision of the feds crashing down the door, taking everything away.’’ He said he locked the deadbolt on his door, lay down on the bed for a while, and then called his mother.
When an article about his PACER exploit was published in The New York Times, Swartz responded in a blog in a typically puckish manner, announcing the story in the form of a personal ad: ‘‘Attention attractive people: Are you looking for someone respectable enough that they’ve been personally vetted by The New York Times, but has enough of a bad-boy streak that the vetting was because they ‘liberated’ millions of dollars of government documents? If so, look no further than page A14 of today’s New York Times.’’
In the PACER exploit, the federal government investigated but decided not to prosecute.
In 2011, however, Swartz went beyond that, according to a federal indictment. In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by means that included breaking into a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university computer network under a false account, federal officials said.
Swartz returned the hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz pressed on, saying that ‘‘Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.’’
Founded in 1995, JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is nonprofit, but institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a subscription that bundles scholarly publications online. JSTOR says it needs the money to collect and to distribute the material and, in some cases, subsidize institutions that cannot afford it.
Malamud said that while he did not approve of Swartz’s actions at MIT, ‘‘Access to knowledge and access to justice have become all about access to money, and Aaron tried to change that. That should never have been considered a criminal activity.’’
Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and an online activist, posted a tribute to Swartz on the blog he co-edits, BoingBoing.net. In an email answer to questions, he called Swartz ‘‘uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant. The world was a better place with him in it.’’
Of the indictment, he said, ‘‘The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.’’
Swartz, he noted, had a habit of turning on those closest to him, saying that ‘‘Aaron held the world, his friends, and his mentors to an impossibly high standard — the same standard he set for himself.’’ He added, however, ‘‘It’s a testament to his friendship that no one ever seemed to hold it against him (except, maybe, himself).’’
In 2007, Swartz wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from the emotion of sadness. ‘‘Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.’’ When the condition gets worse, he wrote, ‘‘You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.’’ Earlier that year, he gave a talk in which he described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career.
On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.
Lawrence Lessig, who heads the Safra Center at Harvard and had worked for a time on behalf of Swartz’s legal defense, noted in an interview that Swartz had been arrested by MIT campus police two years to the day before his suicide. That arrest led to the eventual federal indictment and financial ruin for Swartz, who had made money on the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast but had never tried to turn his intellect to making money. ‘‘I can just imagine him thinking it was going to be a million-dollar defense,’’ Lessig said. ‘‘He didn’t have a million dollars.’’
In an online broadside directed at prosecutors, Lessig denounced what he called the federal ‘‘bullying,’’ and wrote, ‘‘this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’’’
Still, Lessig said, he had seen Swartz just weeks before, at a Christmas party at his home, and before that, at Thanksgiving. ‘‘He seemed fine,’’ he said.