Internet activist, creator of RSS Aaron Swartz found dead

He was charged with many cases, including wire fraud and computer fraud, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and USD 1 million in fines

PTI | January 15, 2013



Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old celebrated computer prodigy-turned-activist and co-builder of the popular social news website Reddit, has reportedly committed suicide, weeks before before he was to go on trial over hacking allegations.

Swartz's body was found Friday evening in Brooklyn, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman with the New York medical examiner's office.

An uncle, Michael Wolf, said that Swartz had apparently hanged himself.

His family and partner said they were "in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing."

"Aaron's 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," they said in a statement.

"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."

The hacking charges relate to the downloading of millions of academic papers from online archive JSTOR, which prosecutors say he intended to distribute for free.

Swartz, a committed advocate for the freedom of information over the Internet, had denied charges of computer fraud at an initial hearing last year, but his federal trial was due to begin next month.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Swartz's death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and USD 1 million in fines, the New York Times reported.

A prodigy, Swartz was behind some of the Internet's defining moments. At age 14, Swartz co-wrote the RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information.

He was later admitted to Stanford University, but dropped out after a year. He then help develop Reddit, the social news website that was eventually bought by heavyweight publisher Conde Nast in 2006.

Swartz then engaged in Internet digital activism, co- founding Demand Progress, a political action group that campaigns against Internet censorship.

But he pushed the legal limits, allegedly putting him on the wrong side of the law.

In 2011, he was arrested in Boston for alleged computer fraud and illegally obtaining documents from protected computers. He was later indicted in an incident in which he allegedly stole millions of online documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He pleaded not guilty in September, according to MIT's "The Tech" newspaper.

Swartz's family and partner recalled his "commitment to social justice," and called his death "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

They criticised US prosecutors for seeking "an exceptionally harsh array of charges (for) an alleged crime that had no victims," and MIT because it did not "stand up for Aaron."

"Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death," they said.

Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US Department of Justice, declined to comment on Swartz's case, citing respect for the family.

His funeral will be held Tuesday at a synagogue in Highland Park.

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and online activist, posted a tribute to Swartz on BoingBoing.net, a blog he co-edits. In an e-mail, he called Swartz "uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant."

"The world was a better place with him in it," he said.

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