Aaron Swartz, the Reddit co-founder and internet activist, has been found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York – he is believed to have committed suicide. His death comes just one month before he was due to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If found guilty it was expected that he would face 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1Million.
The indictment alleged that in November 2010 Swartz had hacked into MIT’s system and stolen nearly five million documents from a digital Library (Journal Storage or JSTOR) which users were supposed to subscribe and pay for. Interestingly JSTOR had refused to press charges and were publically ‘not at ease’ with the prosecution. JSTOR had actually decided to release 1200 journals free of charge prior to the suicide.
Swartz never actually made the information available to the public.
In 2008 Swartz was involved in a similar incident; writing a program to download 20 million pages of documents from Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), a database of federal judicial documents which he believed should be available to the public free of charge. On that occasion the authorities decided to take no action against him. Swartz dedicated much of his time to fighting online censorship and his court case had become a cause célèbre for many similar-minded figures.
News of his death has resulted in an outpouring of tributes over the internet. Tim Berners-Lee, the man credited with inventing the World Wide Web, tweeted: "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."
His family also paid their tribute by adding “He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place."
Whilst the life of a troubled but extremely gifted Aaron Swartz is over prematurely, the on-going debate over internet censorship and ownership most certainly isn’t.
Aaron Swartz November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013