Internet Visionary Aaron Swartz Dies at 26

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Aaron Swartz. Image credit: Fred BenensonImage credit: Fred Benenson

Aaron Swartz, one of the brilliant minds behind RSS and an Internet activist pushing for open access to public government and academic documents, took his own life on Friday at the age of 26. Mr. Swartz was facing the possibility of up to 50 years in jail on Federal charges for downloading nearly 5 million academic documents from the JSTOR subscription database without authorization.

Mr. Swartz's impact on the Internet and our day-to-day online lives has been dramatic, even though many people outside of technology circles didn't know his name. When he was 14 he helped create Real Simple Syndication, or RSS, which has been the defacto standard for online news aggregation for years. Services like Google Reader rely on RSS, as does Apple's podcast subscription service in iTunes.

His long list of accomplishments also included founding Infogami which later merged with Reddit, helping develop the Open Library project, and serving as a fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

He was also actively involved with several organizations championing free access to public documents online from government, academic and research organizations, which ultimately played a part in the criminal charges he was facing. Despite the fact that JSTOR refused to pursue criminal charges against him, Federal prosecutors moved forward with a case that included wire fraud and computer fraud, up to US$1 million in fines and 50 years in jail.

Mr. Swartz was indicted in January 2011 for hacking into JSTOR and downloading most of the organization's database. While Federal prosecutors implied he accessed and downloaded the documents for personal financial gain, Mr, Swartz maintained -- just as he did when he earlier accessed M.I.T. documents without permission -- that his goals were to give public access to documents that he felt should be freely available.

He also suffered from depression and publicly spoke about the problems it caused for him. In a 2007 blog post he shared his feelings on depression stating,

Surely there have been times when you've been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it's worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you've done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn't come for any reason and it doesn't go for any either. 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 colored by the sadness.

We can't undo his suicide, but we can mourn his passing and the loss of to his family, friends, and the Internet community. We can also remind everyone that even though you may feel alone and the only option is to take your own life, there's always someone willing to help. If you don't feel there's anyone in your life you can turn to, the National Suicide Prevention hotline is always ready to listen, too. Their number is 1-800-273-8255.

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Very nice touch adding the hotline number at the end, Jeff. It all just reminds me of Rodney.


Rest in peace.  All your trials are over.

As for those anal-retentive types that persecuted (that is the right word) you for doing what is obviously the right thing in the dissemination of human knowledge, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your crotches.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

I first ran into Aaron 13 or 14 years ago in a private group of Mac developer types. He was brilliant and wise beyond his years back then. I’ve met a few prodigies in my travels. None were comfortable just talking with new people like Aaron. I’d go so far as to say annoyingly comfortable. Maybe the Internet makes that possible,

Cory Doctorow has his [url=]initial thoughts at Boing Boing. Two things I will note…  Cory recounts how during the RSS 1.0 days, Aaron would come out to San Francisco and stay with Internet friends while working on the spec. Cory also notes that he never met Aaron’s parents. Given the timing of their friendship and his age, and the prominence of both, I find that weird. Not suspicious, but weird. Weird like how in a condo complex, 20 people can live within 50 feet of each other and not know any of their neighbors.

Aaron was an old soul with more than his share of brains and drive. But he was also a kid. I always got the feeling that he was being egged on a bit by his various mentors. I think his parents were incredibly brave to give him so much space so early. That is what let him learn, create, and accomplish. But it also left him a little rudderless.

The impending prosecution over JSTOR is beyond insane. What he did with scripting the downloads was inconsiderate at worst, most certainly not a federal crime. Breaking into an unlocked closet could have been handled locally as trespassing if MIT wanted to make a point. I’m sure that weighed on him, and I’m sure he felt abandoned by a community that couldn’t always focus 100% on him, even though they strongly defended him and would be there when needed. I wonder what the last song he listened to was.


A great tragedy. The cost of loss of someone this brilliant, that would have done massive good for the world over the next fifty years or so, is incalculable. Then to have it happen for such a stupid reason. JSTOR wasn’t interested in pressing charges. The only one that were, were the asshat prosecutors that are trying to lock up the internet. The same mentality did that this, is pushing for things like SOPA, and multi million dollar fines for downloading a dozen or so songs. Literally they caused this as surely as if they had done him in with their own hands. Yet those poster children for abuse of power will sleep well tonight. The words “forgive them for they know not what they do” come to mind. Sorry but I’m not that forgiving.

Hey Anonymous, I got your next target.


Oh and I’d like to echo my praise for adding the contact information for the NSP Hotline. As acarver pointed out we’ve seen this happen before with Rodney and others. Points of light done in by a moment of darkness.



My compliments to you, as well, for having the presence of mind and sensitivity of soul to pen that last paragraph on depression and the hotline.

Brad: your personal thoughts on Aaron Schwartz are appreciated and further help to humanise this tragedy.

And this tragedy is instructive on multiple levels. Two lessons strike me most poignantly.

First, it is an important reminder that, while the phenomenon of life might be resilient, tenacious and ineradicable, the life of an individual is fragile, precarious and all too easily extinguished.

Second, it is a reminder that genius and brilliance are often commingled with mental illness, of which depression is but one manifestation, and one still under-appreciated, particularly in the young. Even small children can suffer from depression, never mind low self esteem; the toxic combination often fatal.

We wield our words and deeds too often as weapons upon one another with a callous disregard for either consequence or the capacity of the recipient, who may not only be a sensitive sentient, but a fragile one unable to bear their weight without injury. Or worse.

While I appreciate geoduck’s admonition of the government prosecutors who pursued this case, I am mindful that justice systems are no respecters of person, nor should we expect them to be. On the other hand, we can and should expect sufficient mindfulness within ourselves to never assume the capacity of another to bear the brute force of our lesser selves, whether it be our actions or our words.


Some background on the “case” against Swartz:


There are times when taking stock of our personal interface with the world seems appropriate. Time to reflect on our humanity, and balance our harshness or righteousness against our outward display of compassion and capacity to forgive. This is one of those times, even for bystanders.

Constructive reader comments are one of the attractions of this website. I hope readers, particularly wab95 in this case, continue to add posts that contribute to the discussion and understanding of the topics that the TMO staff so ably post.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

@ibuck: I appreciate the sentiment, but if you saw a few of the emails Aaron sent to people over the years, you might appreciate him as a great combatant for his cause wink. Civility wasn’t exactly his deal.

bronson pinchot

I was under the impression he had a paid account at JSTOR and was legally downloading everything.  They initially had a problem with him posting the info publicly, but since dropped it.  The feds didn’t drop it though.

John Dingler, artist

While the mental health advice seems from the heart, no, Jeff, your concluding paragraph should not have been to offer the reader the National Suicide Prevention hotline; This goes against the primary focus of your report which was Aaron Swartz’ valiant, good advocacy for an open internet.

You should have added another paragraph, the one immediately after the NSP hotline advice, to instead have been advice on the most important matter: the fight for an open internet and the fight against those forces in (Rightwinger Sen. Orrin Hatch, the same guy who hoped to impeach Clinton) and out of big gubl’mnt (like Hollywood media companies) that are trying to close down and clamp down on whole websites and the mere lukewarm support of the open internet by supposedly open companies such as Google, for example, and for his visionary work combating the severe stifling of internet freedoms caused by the explosion of claims in the field of intellectual property rights. This is his legacy; This is what we should be left with, not the condition of his mental health.

John Dingler, artist

The audaciousness which which Swartz was hounded by that wayward Massachusetts prosecutor, you’d think that the latter was going after a terrorist. The next step up in escalation would have been to use the US Patriot Act and the NDAA 2012 and 2013 to put him into a military brig indefinately without the Writ of Habeas Corpus!

Hey, watch for articles soon published to make the overzealous prosecutor into a victim. I fully expect this development.

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