The open web and freedom of information in general lost one of their most passionate proponents yesterday, with the death of early Reddit staffer and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on Friday, according to a family member. He was facing federal charges for hacking into the JSTOR academic database and downloading millions of research papers, but had also reportedly suffered from depression. He was 26 years old.
As the news of his death spread throughout the web and social networks like Twitter, there was an outpouring of grief and sorrow from some of his friends and those he had worked with on a number of projects — including the early development of the RSS syndication standard, the Django web platform, the Creative Commons movement and the W3C web standards committee. We’ve collected some of those comments and responses here (and there’s also a Reddit thread, a Metafilter thread and a Hacker News thread about his death):
Steven Levy (@StevenLevy) January 12, 2013
Tim O'Reilly (@timoreilly) January 12, 2013
Cory Doctorow, author and BoingBoing co-founder, posted a long and heart-felt tribute to Swartz and a discussion of his struggles with depression, saying:
“Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber… we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.”
In 2007, Swartz wrote what many took to be a suicide note (thanks to Nik Cubrilovic for the link) after he had been fired by Conde Nast (which acquired Reddit in 2006), a note that led Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian to call police and break into Swartz’s apartment. The young programmer later explained that he wrote it while he was in pain due to a medical issue, but some friends took it as a sign that he was struggling with emotional problems.
RIP Aaron Swartz. What a terrible, tragic waste. boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip…—
Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) January 12, 2013
Aaron Swartz was one of my favorite people, and I'm crying. j.mp/UdKWvB—
Adrian Holovaty (@adrianholovaty) January 12, 2013
John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball also posted a tribute, saying: “Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind… he had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.”
wow so sad @aaronsw. he was definitely fighting the good fight.—
from the future (@nk) January 12, 2013
Swartz was also involved in the fight against SOPA, the draconian anti-piracy law that Congress tried to pass last year — this is a video of him discussing the campaign against the bill, which was later shelved:
Many of those who mourned Swartz’s passing wondered whether he knew how respected and loved he was by those who were close to him:
Angry about @aaronsw's suicide. So much love for him on the Internet today, did he know?—
Nelson Minar (@nelson) January 12, 2013
Some of Swartz’s supporters in his fight against the federal charges related to his JSTOR hacking questioned whether the threat of jail time might have accelerated his depression, but others said he didn’t seem that troubled by it. As we wrote last year, Swartz (who had hacked into a federal database in 2009 and download thousands of documents) gained access to a computer at Harvard and ran a program that downloaded a huge proportion of the research papers JSTOR sells to universities and other institutions.
Fuck. The world seems emptier knowing Aaron's not in it. Hounded to death by the DOJ after the "victims" dropped charges. All is sadness.—
Nat Torkington (@gnat) January 12, 2013
Declan McCullagh (@declanm) January 12, 2013
According to those who knew him, Swartz believed that it was wrong to charge so much for access to these papers, many of which were produced by academics for free, and in some cases with government funding. And even though JSTOR said it didn’t want to proceed with a case against him (and has since opened up its database — at least a little) the Department of Justice continued with its case, which was set to begin April 1.
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