Earlier today, the L.A. Times reported that Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was found dead. The 26 year-old hacker activist hanged himself in his home about two months before he was slated to go on trial for accusations of stealing millions of journal articles with the intent to make them available to the public for free.
Swartz's passing has caused a torrent of grief for those who advocate free speech online. “Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world,” writes Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle. “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.”
The young man was known as a prodigy; at age14 Swartz was already involved in developing RSS feeds. In addition to founding Infogami, which later merged with Reddit, he worked toward freedom of information, copyright reform, and network neutrality. Swartz's non-profit group Demand Progress successfully drove opposition to SOPA.
Using his MIT's subscription to JSTOR, Swartz downloaded nearly the entirety of the academic library. Kevin Poulsen of Wired wrote, “Aaron brought a laptop onto MIT’s campus, plugged it into the student network and ran a script called keepgrabbing.py that aggressively — and at times disruptively — downloaded one article after another. When MIT tried to block the downloads, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, culminating in Swartz entering a networking closet on the campus, secretly wiring up an Acer laptop to the network, and leaving it there hidden under a box. A member of MIT’s tech staff discovered it, and Aaron was arrested by campus police when he returned to pick up the machine.”
JSTOR filed no charges after the files were returned, however an FBI investigation ended in prosecution by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann, who specializes in cyber-crime.
Larry Lessig, who worked with Swartz in the Creative Commons project, believes that severity of the punishment sought by the federal government was the major influence behind the suicide. Swartz would have faced hefty fines and decades in prison. “[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” Lessig writes. “I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”
On Wednesday, JSTOR announced they had made more than 1,200 journal available to the public at no cost.