Remembering internet activist Aaron Swartz

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On Friday, Aaron Swartz — the 26-year-old internet innovator who helped create RSS and had a hand in the building of Reddit — was found dead in his apartment in an apparent suicide. Swartz, who suffered from depression, had reportedly found out just days before that a plea bargain deal with federal prosecutors had fallen apart. A longtime proponent of free information online, in 2010, Swartz took to MIT’s computer network and downloaded nearly five million articles from the pay-per-use database JSTOR, with the mission of making the data publicly available. While JSTOR chose not prosecute, the U.S. government did. (MIT is internally reviewing its own role in the prosecution.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, Swartz was coming to terms with how the case — in which he faced up to 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines — would affect the rest of his life. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family and girlfriend wrote in a public statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

(See Peter Ludlow’s fascinating piece in the New York Times about the verbal warfare over positioning the term ‘hacktivist,’ a word that’s been used many times in the days since Swartz’s passing.)

TED speaker and legal activist Lawrence Lessig was a mentor to Swartz and sent out an email sharing his sadness about Swartz’s passing.

“When I decided in 2006 to give up the work I was doing on internet policy and copyright reform, Aaron Swartz — the Internet turned social activist found dead in his apartment Friday — was there. Sipping a cup of water on a cold December night in Berlin, he pressed me, ‘How do you think you’ll get anything done so long as there is this corruption?’

I didn’t have an answer for him, because of course he was right. Six months later, I made the announcement that I was turning my focus to the problem of corruption. Six months after that, Aaron was among the first board members of ‘Change Congress.’ Change Congress is what morphed into Rootstrikers.

People have called me Aaron’s mentor. The truth is the other way around. Aaron was my mentor. Since I first met him 12 years ago, he had pressed questions exactly like that. Again and again, his questions steered me, and guided me.

But no longer. I have written about the bullying that I believe contributed to this outrage. But I wanted to write to you to remind all of us that our fight was his fight … Our thoughts and prayers are with his incredible parents.”

UPDATE June 27, 2014: See the film The Internet’s Own Boy, about the life of Aaron Swartz.