Image 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.