Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz, Internet activist and co-author of the RSS 1.0 spec, dead of suicide at 26

Social media awoke on Saturday to the news that Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide on Friday. He was 26.

While oft-credited as a co-founder of Reddit, the popular information-sharing and social media site, the history was more complex than that. In reality his company, Infogami, was acquired by Reddit about six months after the social news site was founded.

It is still unclear why Swartz killed himself, but he was said to be depressed and struggling with illness. He may have had good reason to be depressed: in July of 2011 he was indicted on charges of stealing some 4.8 million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and JSTOR, which is an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. That case has dragged its way through the courts; Swartz appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.

It is alleged that in September of 2010, Swartz bought an Acer laptop, registered it on the MIT network with the username "Gary Host" ("ghost"), but was eventually blocked by JSTOR. Eventually, he reconnected, but after some cat-and-mouse JSTOR shut down access from the entire MIT campus.

Swartz allegedly upped the ante; it is charged that he broke into a computer wiring closet in a restricted area of MIT. He then allegedly tapped into the computer network and gained further access to the documents.

It is unclear what he intended to do with the documents, but it's true that many were already in the public domain. Theoretically, he could have been using the documents are part of his work at DemandProgress.org, which he founded.

That organization's mission statement is "to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying. In particular, we tend to focus on issues of civil liberties, civil rights, and government reform."

DemandProgress was credited as being instrumental in the “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA," which took place in 2012.

Swartz was brilliant. At the age of 14, he co-authored the specification for RSS 1.0. However, according to Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow, a close friend, Swartz had suffered with depression for a long time.

We will probably never know the reasons for his suicide, unless a suicide note is found and revealed. In addition to depression, there is speculation he committed suicide because of the JSTOR indictment.

At any rate, the Internet has lost a brilliant mind. May he rest in peace.



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