On the morning of January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz the young genius who gave the Internet the RSS feed system and opposed controversial Internet copyright reform was found dead in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn apartment by his girlfriend.
The NY Medical Examiner concluded this was another sad suicide. At the time of his death, Reddit co-founder Swartz was defending against 13 felony charges, $1 million in fines and more than 35 years in prison. Swartz, a leading campaigner for the open Internet access movement was a growing threat to the Establishment’s grip on mass media. At just 14, this child prodigy co-authored RSS, a family of web feed formats used to publish frequently updated works—such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, and video—in a standardized format. RSS helped instantly make the world wide web a far more dynamic experience. Later Swartz started Reddit, the massively popular bulletin board system. But he first fell foul of the authorities when, as a promoter of Open Access, he fought SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act). This was a U.S. bill intended to protect copyrighted intellectual property but was also seen by critics as a Trojan horse to shut down websites not approved by the Establishment.
Federal prosecutors charged Swartz for alleged crimes relating to downloading around four million academic journal articles from JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) a digital library founded in 1995. Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Heymann claimed Swartz intended to make the papers freely available on P2P file-sharing sites. Kelly Caine, a professor at Clemson University who studies people’s attitudes toward technology and privacy said Swartz “was doing this not to hurt anybody, not for personal gain, but because he believed that information should be free and open, and he felt it would help a lot of people.”
In a moving statement the Swartz family commented that Aaron’s “commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life.” In his short 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.”
Chris Soghoian, a technologist and policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union, said: “Existing laws don’t recognise the distinction between two types of computer crimes: malicious crimes committed for profit, such as the large-scale theft of bank data or corporate secrets; and cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skilfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public. The government used the same laws intended to go after digital bank robbers to go after this 26-year-old genius.”
A White House petition has been launched to remove Assistant Prosecutor Heymann for “overzealous prosecution of an allegedly minor and non-violent electronic crime.” According to the Boston Herald (January 15, 2013) the petition has now achieved more than the 25,000 signatories threshold needed to generate an official response from the White House under the Obama administration’s stated terms.