This past Friday Aaron Swartz took his own life at the age of 26. In his short but remarkable life, Aaron had helped technologies many of us use every day, including RSS, Markdown and Reddit.
Aside from his substantial technical contributions, Aaron also made a lasting contributions to web and data freedom. He co-founded the non-profit group Demand Progress, which played an instrumental role in the fight against SOPA. He fought against public data being placed behind paywalls, and used his technical know-how to compromise such systems. In 2009 he downloaded and released over two million documents from PACER, the access system that charges the public $.10 per page for access US federal court records. In 2011 he downloaded nearly 5 million articles from the JSTOR academic journal archive (made up of articles produced through public funding sources) by taking advantage of his access to MIT’s computer network.
The US government took a severe view of Aaron’s alleged theft of JSTOR documents, arresting him and levelling hacking charges against him that could carry millions of dollars of fines and over 50 years of jail time. Despite the fact that JSTOR declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, the US government pursued the case aggressively, reportedly declining any plea bargain that would see Aaron forgo jail time. Larry Lessig and others have publicly shamed the US government for their overzealous attempts to label Aaron a felon. As one would expect, the enormous strain of the pending court case contributed to Aaron’s choice to take his own life.
Aaron was a brilliant mind that would have no doubt continued to make substantial contributions to the web and beyond, and we’re poorer for losing him.