Aaron Swartz is being remembered as a shit disturber who devoted his much-too-short life to liberating data.
The Internet activist committed suicide in New York on Friday. He was 26. “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” Swartz’s attorney Elliot R. Peters confirmed in an email to The Tech, which broke the news.
“We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing. Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world. ”
Swartz is being celebrated for co-authoring RSS code at age 14. He created DemandProgress.org to campaign against SOPA/PIPA and the website theinfo.org. In July 2011, he was arrested for stealing some four million academic documents from JSTOR, a nonprofit digital archive.
Swartz’s family said decisions made by the U.S. Attorney’s office and MIT in the wake of that case had a role in the tragedy:
“The U.S. 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.”
In a statement on its website, JSTOR extended its condolences:
“We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”
The New York Times once called Swartz an Internet folk hero.
“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York, told the Times.
“It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture,” Swartz wrote in a manifesto in 2008. “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks.”
Early Saturday morning, Cory Doctorow reflected on the news about his friend:
“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 website Public.Resource.Org went dark Saturday in honour of Swartz: “Aaron Swartz made our world more free,” the organization said. “Be Free, Internet. Thank you, Aaron, for what you gave us.”
In a post Saturday morning, James Fallows of the Atlantic said Swartz had a big effect in a very short time. “Swartz was a strong and effective advocate of untrammeled information and knowledge-flow in all directions, and vigilance against control or de-facto censorship efforts by corporate or governmental interests.”
Family members said a commitment to social justice defined Swartz’s life:
“He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more. ”
As news spread, Swartz was remembered across social media by Internet pioneers, social media gurus and Twitter users: