Aaron Swartz passed away on January 11, 2013, at age 26. Swartz was a renowned Internet activist who strongly believed in fairness and free access to information. Anyone who knew him considered him to be exceptionally brilliant. Even as a teenager he had a hand in crafting the Internet as we know it today.
Here’s what you should know about him.
1. Aaron Swartz’ Death Was A Suicide
Swartz hanged himself in his apartment last night. This has been confirmed by his uncle. His body was found by his girlfriend. No one is sure why he decided to take his life, but there are theories that it has to do with his battles with depression and the federal government (see below).
2. Swartz Co-Founded Reddit
Reddit, a website that has been referred to as the spine of the Internet, was co-founded by Swartz. There have been some who have disputed that title (co-founder), but their qualms with his being called such are more nitpicking than merit. Swartz founded one of the two start-ups that were combined to form Reddit.
3. He Was Facing Trial
Mr. Swartz was arrested at MIT for hiding a computer in a utility closet to download academic articles from the online journal repository JSTOR. He then removed the computer.
JSTOR secured a promise from Swartz not to distribute the documents and didn’t press charges, and MIT backed off the case as well. But the federal prosecutor, Carmen M. Ortiz, pressed on, alleging Swartz stole millions of dollars worth of documents and threatening him with a 35-year jail sentence and a $1,000,000 fine. They then upped the charges so that Swartz was looking at a 50-year jail sentence and a $4 million fine.
That sentence for a case no one who was conceivably harmed was interested in pursuing. That sentence for downloading academic journals.
The court case bled Swartz of all the money he had made from the sale of Reddit, but what he really could not stand was being labeled a felon.
4. He Was Arrested Two Years Before His Suicide
His suicide occurred two years to the day after his arrest. This and the fears Swartz confided about his possible imprisonment have led a number of people to speculate that it was the federal government prosecution that led him to take his own life.
5. He Co-Wrote RSS 1.0
When Aaron Swartz was a mere 14 years old, he helped write RSS 1.0. At an age where most people’s top priority is figuring out where to sit in the cafeteria, Swartz helped create RSS, helping to shape the modern Internet.
6. He Co-Founded DemandProgress — & Defeated SOPA
Aaron Swartz was an Internet activist, dedicated to the freedom of information. To this end he co-founded an organization called DemandProgress, which took the lead in fighting SOPA — and winning. Above is a video of Aaron discussing that victory.
7. He Was A Supertaster
A supertaster is someone who experiences a greater intensity of taste than your average person. As a young teen he would only eat white foods. When he found out that he was a supertaster (at the urging of BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow), he realized he’d have to be careful not to become vitamin-deficient by avoiding bitter foods and created a proper eating strategy.
8. He Battled With Depression for Years
Swartz had written about the subject of being depressed and discussed it with friends for years. Of particular note is a 2007 blog post on the subject, in which he wrote:
Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. 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.
9. He Was Investigated by the FBI
Long before the MIT-JSTOR case, in 2008 Swartz was investigated by the FBI. It had to do with PACER, the repository for federal judicial documents. The database charges 10 cents per page for access to the documents. Activists such as Swartz believe that the documents should be free given that they were created with taxpayer dollars.
Swartz created a program that downloaded millions of pages through library accounts (he footed the bill for the access) and dumped them in a public domain database cleverly named RECAP. He ending up freeing 20 percent of U.S. law. As thanks the FBI investigated him, but found no wrongdoing/lawbreaking. Still, some believe it was anger over this incident that led to the intense prosecution of the MIT-JSTOR case.
10. His Mother Released A Statement
Swartz’ mother released a statement about her son’s suicide, fittingly through Hacker News. This is her statement:
Thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful.
Aaron was a terrific young man. He contributed a lot to the world in his short life and I regret the loss of all the things he had yet to accomplish. As you can imagine, we all miss him dearly. The grief is unfathomable.