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The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

He was a child prodigy, an Internet pioneer and an activist who refused to back down – even when the feds tried to break him

David Amsden Mar 11, 2013
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Aaron Swartz Photo: Sage Ross/Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Share Alike/Ragesoss on Flickr

Aaron Swartz Photo: Sage Ross/Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Share Alike/Ragesoss on Flickr

In the photograph, it seems, nothing is wrong. He is kneeling in the front row, sitting back on his heels, hands folded in his lap. His cheeks are flecked with two-day stubble, and his thick brown hair, often a shaggy mess, is tamed and parted to the right. He is one of 30 people in the picture, a group of progressive online activists who had convened that day ”“ January 9th, 2013 ”“ for a summit in Holmes, New York, a bucolic country town 70 miles north of Manhattan. He never much enjoyed posing for photos: The best images of him ”“ like those that would appear a few days later in newspapers and websites around the world ”“ tended to be taken when he was otherwise engaged, either making a point or mulling over a point that needed to be made. Still, when everyone gathered that Wednesday evening after dinner to sit for an impromptu portrait in the wood-paneled cabin, he was game, relaxed, nestling in with the others without complaint. Like everyone else in the photo, he is smiling.

At 26 years old, Aaron Swartz had established himself as a singular force bridging the worlds of technology and activism ”“ a young man driven by a restless curiosity and the belief that information was the most valuable of currencies, a form of wealth no one should be deprived of. As a teen programming prodigy, he had helped to develop RSS, the now-ubiquitous tool allowing users to self-syndicate information online, and at 19 he was one of the builders of Reddit, the social news site that was purchased by Condé Nast, which turned Swartz into a millionaire before he could legally order a beer. Since then he had become a tireless and innovative advocate for a number of causes related to politics and the power of unfettered connectivity. In 2011, for instance, he successfully led a campaign to prevent the Stop Online Piracy Act [SOPA], a bill introduced to Congress that would have effectively legalized censorship on the Internet.

But just as his lanky frame and quiet disposition belied an inner ferocity, Swartz’s demeanor that Wednesday seems, in retrospect, to mask more truths than it illuminated. Two years earlier, he had been arrested for allegedly hacking the servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to steal millions of files from an online library of academic journals, and the federal government had, in the years since, been unrelenting in its quest to ensure that his punishment would be severe. The case was scheduled to go to trial in April, and if he lost, Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison. Rarely did he talk about the mental and financial toll his legal battles had taken, so it was difficult even for those closest to him to know how much it was weighing on him. Two days after leaving the conference, however, he made a definitive statement that United States v. Aaron Swartz was at least one battle he was no longer up for fighting. On January 11th, almost exactly two years from the day he was arrested, Aaron Swartz ended his life by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

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 It was inevitable that the suicide of a young man who lived a life as open-sourced as the technologies he championed would not be grieved only in private. To read the Twitter feeds of his friends and followers was to experience the depth of their confusion and disbelief. To pore over the countless blogs that paid tribute to him was to understand how starkly his ambitions differed from so many of his peers: Unlike, say, Mark Zuckerberg, who built an online empire by corralling and monetizing private information, Swartz dedicated himself to limiting the amount of power institutions could wield over individuals. And to see the hundreds who turned out to honor him at memorials across the country ”“ hackers, politicians, artists, writers, old-guard technologists ”“ was to discover the vast and eclectic network of colleagues Swartz had amassed in the course of a short life. Cory Doctorow, a longtime friend and co-editor of the tech blog Boing Boing, hailed him as “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote of Swartz as a “fighter,” one whose work had an impact far beyond the insular world of programming: “Blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good, a maker of things.”

In life, Swartz had been a prodigious reader and writer, as keen to spend hours discussing the comedy of Louis C.K. as the themes in the historian Robert Caro’s books. On his blog, Raw Thought, Swartz had gained a cult following of fans of his nuanced, erudite, sometimes stubborn and often hilarious riffs on everything from his crushes on girls to his clashes with colleagues to his philosophical musings. Yet in death Swartz left no note. Not a word of explanation. There were friends who had at times worried about Swartz’s mental health, who had suggested he seek counseling long before his arrest, and who in private wondered if his death was the tragic consequence of a hidden, unchecked depression. But as the suicide became an international news story, and as the details of his prosecution were released, the swell of grief was overtaken by waves of anger, of bitterness ”“ a collective sense that his actions could not be understood solely as those of a deeply troubled young man. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” declared his family in a public statement. “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.”

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This became a sentiment widely echoed in the days and weeks following his suicide: the conviction that Swartz was a victim of a government that has, in recent years, stepped up its pursuit of “cybercrimes” in ways once reserved for terrorists, prosecuting even minor transgressions with increasingly harsh punishments. Wikileaks claimed him as an ally, while Anonymous, the vigilante hacker collective, took over a number of websites, converting them into makeshift shrines. Visitors to the site for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for instance, found the home page replaced by a statement: “Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win.”

Swartz himself had been among the most eloquent thinkers about the free- culture movement and the rifts it had created between old and new, analog and digital. “There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things the law understands,” he stated in May 2012, in a keynote speech given at the Freedom to Connect Conference. “Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store, or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is the freedom to connect like the freedom of speech, or like the freedom to murder?”

Though he had never spoken publicly about what his own prosecution represented in this conflict, he became in death a symbol of a misguided and overreaching government, one that believed the downloading of academic texts merited more Draconian retributions than any levied against the bankers responsible for the economic collapse. “In an age when our frontiers are digital, the criminal system threatens something tangible but incredibly valuable,” Tim Wu, a professor at ColumbiaLawSchool, wrote on The New Yorker’s website. “Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future. Now we will never know.”

Aaron Swartz was raised in Highland Park, an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, and almost from birth he began to hone the instincts that would come to define him throughout his life: the inner restlessness, the chronic need to dabble in countless projects simultaneously, the desire to organize information, to fix broken systems. He taught himself to read at age three, and by elementary school he was building and programming an ATM for a class project. “I don’t think I have any particular technical skills ”“ I just got a really large head start,” he would remark years later, displaying the streak of false modesty that became one of his most dominant traits, one that could charm and exasperate in equal measure.

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