Reddit, Creative Commons and Demand Progress Co-Founder Aaron Swartz, 26, committed suicide in New York City on Friday night. The news was confirmed by MIT’s The Tech, who received confirmation from Swartz’s uncle, Michael Wolf, and his attorney Elliot Peters.
UPDATE: Here is the official statement from Swartz’s Family. And an interesting excerpt about the role that MIT and the MA U.S. Attorney’s office played in his death. It is awful to think that Aaron was bullied into taking his own life.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” Peters wrote in an email to The Tech.
Swartz, a well-known activist, dedicated himself to developing standards for free and open information sharing. He co-founded Creative Commons, created Python framework web.py as free software and was a member of Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab. Demand Progress also launched the main campaign against Internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA.
Back in 2011, however, Swartz was arrested for allegedly scraping four million MIT papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He was charged with 13 counts of felony this past September, and was facing a potential sentence of dozens of years in prison, as well as a $1 million fine if convicted.
Swartz appeared in court in September and pleaded not guilty, yet his financial troubles followed him. Social justice lawyer Bettina Neuefeind, the wife of Creative Commons Founder Larry Lessig, established free.aaronsw.com to help raise money for Swartz’s defense.
Demand Progress—an organization focused on fighting for civil liberties, civil rights and progressive government reform—compared Swartz’s indictment to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
Prior to being indicted, Swartz had moved to Brooklyn, New York to work for the Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.”
The impact Swartz has made to the free and open Internet is astounding. He also pushed for optimism, regularly blogging and sharing advice with his fans. In a recent post, he detailed “getting better at life,” writing:
Swartz will greatly be missed.