Created on: January 17, 2013
Aaron Swartz, Internet activist and advocate for open access, took his own life January 11, 2013. Swartz, cofounder of Reddit and coauthor of RSS software, was facing trial in April that could have led to as many as 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. The charges stemmed from Swartz’s illegal downloading of scientific journals from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and JSTOR, an academic research service.
According to “Time” magazine, “Swartz, who was considered one of the brightest young minds in tech activism, hanged himself on Friday night in his Brooklyn apartment.” His death has cast a dark cloud over the technology community, which sees his death as a great loss, one that was avoidable.
A preventable suicide?
The belief that it was avoidable stems in part from the decision by JSTOR to drop any civil charges against Swartz. MIT, however, fell short in this regard, noted Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Aaron Swartz was a fellow in 2011.
According to ABC News, MIT has now launched an internal investigation into the matter. Speaking of the matter, President L. Rafael Reif noted, “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.”
MIT Professor Hal Abelson, founder of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, has been placed in charge of the investigation.
Criticism has also been leveled at US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was pressing for tough charges against Swartz, and many are now calling for Ortiz’s removal. A petition drive (which already has collected some 12,000 signatures) is being readied for the White House to require a response in the matter.
Response from Swartz family and supporters
ABC News reported, in a statement released by the Swartz family and supporters, they noted, “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 US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
Others bemoan the loss of Swartz, who had already at such a young age made some great contributions to the world of technology. In addition to helping create RSS software at age 14, Swartz also was a cofounder of Reddit and a political action committee, Demand Progress, which focused on preventing legislation that would lead to censorship of the Internet.
He was a strong advocate of information sharing and freedom; as such, he helped create Open Library (which sought to bring together information on every book ever published), and he helped develop the website, TheInfo.org.
Swartz was a frequent commentator and author on the Internet and the corrupting impact of big money on the media, politics, and public opinion. He was a board member of the group Change Congress.
He died at age 26.
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