The web responds to the untimely death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz

by Mathew on January 12, 2013

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 web.py software framework, the Creative Commons movement and the W3C web standards committee.

We’ve collected some of those comments and responses here (there’s also a Reddit thread and a Hacker News thread about his death, and Alexander Howard of O’Reilly Radar has collected some tweets and links of his own in a Storify post):

Update: Swartz’s family and his partner have released a statement about his death, in which they point the finger of blame directly at the U.S. Attorney’s office and say their prosecution played a role in Aaron’s suicide. The statement says:

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, posted a message after he learned of the news, saying:

“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

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.”

Matt Haughey, the founder of Metafilter, posted a comment on his site about Aaron, whom he met while he was working on the Creative Commons project with Larry Lessig — and how at one programming event, Swartz had to come with his father because he was only 15:

“Aaron, I’m so sorry to see you go. You were an amazing person who did incredible work that helps us all out and I really wish you stayed for many more decades so you could continue making society a better place to be. I’ll really miss you.”

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, posted a memorial entitled “Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies” — and recalled working with the young man on Kahle’s Open Library project, which he helped to code:

“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change. He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication. May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.”

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 eventually led Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian to call the 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 as well.

In 2007, Philipp Lenssen of the blog Google Blogoscoped posted a long interview with Swartz about his development as a programmer, his work with Reddit and Creative Commons, getting fired by Conde Nast and a number of other topics:

“Seriously, though, the Web is what we make of it. We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.”

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.”

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:

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 but never been prosecuted for it — 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.

Larry Lessig, who worked with Swartz on Creative Commons and other projects, has written a post saying what his young friend did with the JSTOR archive was wrong — although the principle may have been right — but that the government’s case against him was reprehensible and over-reaching in the extreme: “Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”

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 (Maria Bustillos has a great overview of the case here). 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, and Swartz faced a potential 35 years in prison.

Bradley Horowitz of Google, and formerly of Yahoo, remembered talking with Swartz about his plans to use Hangouts for journalistic purposes around the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“I was really heart-broken by this news… Thank you Aaron, for all you contributed to the world, and inspiring so many.”

In this video conversation from 2008, Swartz talked about how he got started as a programmer with Economist blogger Will Wilkinson:

Swartz had prepared a webpage in the event that he was “hit by a truck” as he put it:

“I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from aaronsw.com… please update the footer of this page with a link. Also email the relevant lists and set up an autoresponder for my email address to email people who write to me. Feel free to publish things people say about me on the site. Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”

Web pioneer and Harvard fellow Doc Searls wrote a memorial post for Swartz, along with a picture of him at a conference with Dave Winer — a conference Swartz had to be driven to by his mom, since he was only 15 — and said: “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.”

Alex Macgillivray, general counsel at Twitter and former Google lawyer, said:

A comment on the discussion thread on the Y Combinator site Hacker News that appeared to be from Swartz’s mother said:

“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.”

Microsoft research and sociologist Danah Boyd has written about the boy/man she knew for the past nine years, and how he could be both brilliant and frustrating — but she says the thing that makes her the angriest is how unreasonable his prosecution was: “He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did.”

David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has a post on his blog in which he calls Aaron Swartz not a hacker but “a builder.” And Weinberger points (as many others have) to a post from Alex Stamos, an expert in information technology who was an expert witness in Swartz’s case, who argues that his downloading of JSTOR articles wasn’t a criminal hack: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”

Micah Sifry of TechPresident remembers meeting Aaron in 2004, when he was 18, and being impressed with how dedicated he was: “I don’t know where he got the bug, but I understood it. If you have “change the world” disease, there is only one cure. And he tried mightily to change the world using every tool at his disposal.” And Dan Gillmor argues that we should remember Aaron by working for open society and against government abuses: “So amid my grief for Aaron, I’m angry — and committed to working for honorable enforcement of rational laws, and for values Aaron exemplified in his short life.”

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School who knew Swartz well, writes about some of the incredible things that he accomplished at such a young age: “Aaron was a friend, and more than that, he was one of my heroes. No one I have known better embodied the bumper-sticker motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is hard to believe he is gone.” And Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian about what he calls the “inspiring heroism” of Aaron Swartz — he didn’t just talk about internet freedom and civil liberties, Greenwald says, “He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.”

A number of academics have tried to honor Swartz’s commitment to open information by making their journal articles free to download. And Quinn Norton, who was Swartz’s girlfriend for a time, has written a heart-wrenching post about their time together here.

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