SOPA Foe, Reddit Founder Commits Suicide at 26
UPDATED: Aaron Swartz's body was found Friday by his girlfriend; the tech pioneer and activist had suffered from depression.
Aaron Swartz, an outspoken opponent of SOPA and gifted tech pioneer who helped create RSS software as a teenager, has died of an apparent suicide at the age of 26.
The New York Times confirmed Schwartz's death with his uncle, Michael Wolf, who reported that the programmer's girlfriend discovered his body on Friday and that he appeared to have hanged himself.
In July 2011, a federal grand jury indicted Swartz for his unauthorized downloading of 4.8 million academic documents from MIT's JSTOR, a by-subscription-only archive.
Pending charges included wire and computer fraud, with Swartz having faced 35 years in prison an fines of $1 million.
When he was 14 years old, Swartz co-wrote the RSS news-reader tool, and he was also behind the creation of the online hivemind Reddit.
"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," wrote Swartz's friend, Cory Doctorow, in a tribute post on the website Boing Boing.
Swartz was a passionate internet activist and co-founder of Demand Progress, a group whose goal is "to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying."
A staunch foe of SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act pitting Hollywood versus the tech industry and internet freedom advocates, Swartz gave a keynote on the subject last year at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington. He named his address "How we stopped SOPA."
Swartz also fought a public battle with depression. In a post on his personal blog, he described his condition thusly:
"Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak — the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you. You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.
Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness."
Later Saturday, Swartz's family issued a statement through the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which he also co-founded:
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. 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.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his 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.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. 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. The US 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.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
Swartz's funeral will be held Jan. 15 at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Ill.
View his SOPA speech below: