Aaron Swartz, the brilliant Internet pioneer, passionate political activist and computer programming prodigy, committed suicide on Friday as he faced hacking-related charges that could have landed him in jail for decades, according to published reports.
Swartz, who was 26, killed himself in his New York City apartment, according to The Tech, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) newspaper that first reported his passing on Saturday.
Swartz played key roles in the development of the RSS online content syndication technology, in the creation of the Creative Commons licenses, in a campaign against the SOPA and PIPA bills and in the success of the Reddit news sharing site.
He apparently hanged himself and was found by his girlfriend, according to The New York Times.
Swartz faced a variety of charges in a Massachusetts federal court, including computer intrusion, wire fraud and data theft stemming from allegations that he stole millions of scholarly articles and documents from an MIT subscription-based service called JSTOR.
If convicted, Swartz, whose intentions allegedly were to make the articles and documents freely available, could have been hit with a 35-year jail sentence and a US$1 million fine. Swartz had been involved in previous efforts to "liberate" government documents whose access require fees, such as those in the PACER database of court filings.
"Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in a statement when the indictment was unsealed in July 2011. "It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."
Family blasts prosecution
In a statement posted Saturday on Tumblr, Swartz's family blasted both MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's Office, blaming them for playing a part in his death.
"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," reads the statement, which also provides information about funeral plans for Swartz next week.
Swartz's family also eulogized him saying that he was deeply committed to social justice, a life-defining pursuit, and that he had insatiable curiosity, creativity and brilliance, as well as "reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love."
"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," they wrote.
Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University Law School Professor and a friend of Swartz's, reacted to the news with an angry blog post in which he characterized the U.S. government's prosecution of the gifted technology innovator as disproportionately aggressive and punitive.
"From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen,' we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars'—with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime," Lessig wrote. "But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed."
Swartz, Lessig wrote, was always motivated by what the young man considered the public good, never financial riches. Lessig described him as "brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?"
"That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you," he wrote.
In his personal site, Swartz featured a short biographical sketch in which he highlighted several of his current and past projects, including his founding of Demand Progress, which advocated against the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) bills out of concern they'd give the U.S. government power to engage in Internet censorship. The bio also mentions Swartz's work with Web creator Tim Berners-Lee at MIT, and the fact that he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification.
Novelist, journalist and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow, another friend of Swartz's, posted a tribute to him in which he also questioned the wisdom of the prosecution. Doctorow also brought up Swartz's bouts with depression, which Swartz had publicly discussed.
"We have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it," Doctorow wrote.
Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.
This story was updated from an earlier version.