I don’t think I knew who Aaron Swartz was, but this announcement of his death moved me:
Aaron Swartz, online activist and founder of Infogami, a service later merged with Reddit, has committed suicide in New York City on Jan. 11, the Tech reports.
The news was revealed to the Tech by Swartz’s uncle Michael Wolf and confirmed by Swartz’s attorney, Elliot R. Peters. “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” said Peters.
Born in 1986, Swartz has co-authored the first specification of RSS when he was 14. He also started Infogami, a service founded by Y Combinator that was later merged with social networking site Reddit.
Swartz also co-founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group that rallies people “to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.”
In July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly harvesting 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He appeared in court in Sept. 2012, pleading not guilty.
A blog post from 2007 on Swartz’s website reveals a possible cause for taking his own life: depression. In the post, Swartz describes his experiences with severe depression, as well as several other health issues, including migraines.
There’s something about a 14-year old kid who invents a core technology which is a spirit we should encourage. And so often that type of genius comes with its own issues. A friend of his writes:
Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.
The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.
It’s unclear whether his indictment contributed to his suicide, but it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t. He was charged with downloading academic papers — yes, academic papers — to help spread knowledge.
Why academics ever would have wanted to limit access to their writings is incomprehensible from an academic perspective. Even JSTOR is realizing that model cannot go on forever:
Anyone in academia or who has had a brush with academia knows about JSTOR, the nearly two-decades old digital library of academic journals. God knows this longtime student is quite familiar with it. It’s notoriously closed off and expensive for those in academia to access, but its launching a new program to try to fix that. A little.
JSTOR is opening up their Register & Read program to the public after nearly a year-long pilot program which saw 150,000 participants.
Update: I wish I had previously seen Swartz’s website and series about Wikipedia. More on the charges against him, US Government Ups Felony Count In JSTOR/Aaron Swartz Case From Four To Thirteen.
More: I think learning about this on the heels of David Gregory being given preferential treatment is what has affected me. This from Crooked Timber about how Swartz was treated:
The last time I saw Aaron, we didn’t talk about the JSTOR incident itself, for all the obvious reasons. We did talk about the Kafkaesque nightmare he had landed in, where literally anything he said could be taken grossly out of context and used against him by a prosecutorial apparatus apparently more driven by vindictiveness, stupidity and politics than by any particular interest in justice or the public interest. He told me how, when the police finally came around to search his apartment, some weeks after the charges had been laid, he jokingly asked them what had taken them so long. Of course, he then found these words being twisted by the prosecutors to suggest that he had effectively admitted he was guilty.
And from Lawrence Lessig:
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
What the people who mock our mockery of the handling of the Gregory case don’t get is that we didn’t want David Gregory prosecuted, we wanted an end to the arbitrary and capricious use of byzantine gun laws which capture innocent people in their web, but are not enforced as to the powerful and connected. Perhaps if the people who advocated for those and even more onerous laws had to live by them, we might end the madness.