New York, Jan. 13: Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing web content to users and who later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment.
An uncle, Michael Wolf, said that Swartz, 26, had apparently hanged himself, and that a friend of Swartz’s had discovered the body.
At 14, Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.
Charges in the case were pending at the time of Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties 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 the 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 “greybeards approached him with awe”.
Wolf said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, 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”.
Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organisations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
He co-founded Demand Progress, which promotes online campaigns on social justice — including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill.
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 because 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, Swartz wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 per cent of the enormous database.
The government shut down the free library program. The federal government investigated but did not 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 gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.
Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a US attorney, pressed on, saying that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars”.
On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.
Swartz did not talk much about his impending trial, Quinn Norton, a close friend, said on Saturday, but when he did, it was clear that “it pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond”.
In a talk in 2007, Swartz described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career. He also wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from 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 coloured 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”.