Who Was Aaron Swartz, and Why is He Dead at 26?
Family members say one of the most prolific minds of the digital age apparently took his own life Friday, a victim of depression and the stress of a trumped-up federal piracy case.
Aaron Swartz, a programmer, polymath and information activist whose work formed the basis of content subscription services widely used on the Internet,was found dead of an apparent suicide Friday. He was 26.
Swartz believed information access is a form of social justice, and famously campaigned successfully against the Stop Online Piracy Act. He co-founded the e-petitioning group Demand Progress to organize and advance online activism for progressive causes.
But Swartz's convictions landed him in trouble with the federal government. In 2011, he was indicted for downloading nearly the entire library of JSTOR, a digital, subscription-based archive of literary and scientific journal articles, from a computer closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
In a statement on Swartz's death, JSTOR said it "had regretted being drawn into" the case "since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge."
"He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the Web from which we all benefit," the statement reads. "We join those who are mourning this tragic loss."
The group also mentions that "Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011."
Despite JSTOR settling its civil complaints against Swartz, the federal government pressed on. At the time of his death, Swartz faced 13 felony charges, as many as 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
That pressure contributed to his death, his family and partner believe. Swartzblogged about his battle with depression, and the impending case may have been too much for him to bear, they said in a statement:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorialoverreach.
Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
In response, MIT president L. Rafael Reif announced that the school would lead a formal inquiry into its role in the JSTOR incident, compiling a report that would outline its options at the time and what it elected to do.
"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that include all of us at MIT," Reif wrote.
The statement from Swartz's family remembers his "insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable:
These gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.