Aaron Swartz, a cofounder of Reddit, coinventor of RSS, and high-profile activist for open data, has committed suicide, according to MIT newspaper The Tech. He was 26.
The list of Swartz’s contributions to the Internet is long. At age 14, he helped write the RSS 1.0 specification. He was a cofounder of Reddit. He worked with Internet legal activist Larry Lessig on the creation of Creative Commons. And he created the initial version of web.py, a Python-based framework for websites that is used by Reddit and many other sites.
Beyond his technical contributions, Swartz was also an opinionated writer and an active proponent of freedom of information. He drew attention in 2008 for downloading almost 20 million documents from PACER, a for-fee database of court records, and then distributing them to the public. While the documents in PACER are public domain, Swartz’s actions angered the managers of PACER because they gave the public a way to avoid its usual fees of 10 cents per page. That action drew an FBI investigation but, apparently, no charges.
Swartz got into more serious trouble in 2011 after using MIT’s network to download almost 5 million articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit that provides access to academic journals. That brought a federal indictment and a total of 13 felony counts against Swartz. He could have faced dozens of years in prison and up to $1 million in fines if convicted. His downloading script was aggressive enough that it brought down MIT’s network and prevented access to JSTOR for days at a time, the charges alleged.
In both cases, Swartz’s goal was to liberate information and make it more freely available.
He was also an activist who used his computer skills and devotion to public information to foster political change, most recently through Demand Progress, a nonprofit that he founded.
Cory Doctorow’s eulogy for Aaron Swartz on BoingBoing does a better job of explaining who this man was, and why he mattered to so many people, than anything else I’ve read this morning.
I never met him, but I am sad this morning just the same. His death is a loss to anyone who uses the Internet.
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