Large swaths of the Internet are in mourning today for Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old hacktivist who took his own life last week. I didn't know Aaron or much about him besides the thumbnail sketch that has now been repeated thousands of times across the Web. But it's a heck of a thumbnail.
At age 14, Swartz invented Really Simple Syndication (RSS), which revolutionized how blogs were distributed and consumed. As a Stanford undergrad he started Infogami, a wiki platform later absorbed into Reddit -- and made him independently wealthy when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast in 2006. Swartz helped to develop the Creative Commons standard that governs copyright and fair use for millions of websites. More recently, he had been attempting to bring the "information wants to be free" ethos into reality, breaking into closed systems of information and trying to open them to the public.
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On Friday evening, Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment with his own belt, leaving no note. His death has been attributed to the combination of a lifelong battle with depression and Swartz's realization that he would soon have to do prison time for a crime he committed as an act of hacktivism.
In September 2010, Swartz entered an unlocked server closet at MIT, connected his laptop, and began downloading millions of files from JSTOR, a fee-based trove of academic papers. For that crime he was facing up to 35 years of federal prison time at the time of his death, despite the fact that Swartz returned the files and JSTOR opted to drop charges against him in June 2011.
MIT and federal prosecutors apparently decided to make an example of Swartz. Well, they got their example.
The more I read about this, the angrier I become. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor who was both friend and advisor to Swartz, sums up the outrage rather nicely:
Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor's behavior. 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. 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.