Obit: Aaron Swartz

I wrote this obituary for The Irish Times last week.

Aaron Swartz, Born: November 8th, 1986 Died: January 11th, 2013 Aaron Swartz took his own life in an apartment in Brooklyn on January 11th. Though only 26 when he died, Swartz had many claims to fame.

At the age of 14, he had co-authored specification 1.0 of RSS, the service that allows irishtimes.comand virtually every other major website to syndicate content to users. Swartz dropped out of Stanford to pursue his own start-up, Infogami, which merged with Reddit in 2005.

Reddit’s sale to Condé Nast made Swartz rich by the standards of most 19-year-olds. Swartz’s interests, however, lay beyond the commercial.

As a precocious teen, he had used the internet to seek out connections with eminent minds, including Prof Lawrence Lessig, a key figure in internet law based at Harvard University. He became heavily involved with the Creative Commons movement to recast copyright in the digital era, becoming a prominent campaigner in the protests against the Stop Online Piracy Act .

Swartz was an embodiment of the principles of the hacker tradition, which had grown first at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s own Research Laboratory of Electronics at the end of the 1950s. He was a genius with an axe to grind. He was also, as Cory Doctorow’s obituary in Boing Boing noted, both principled and inflexible.

Before he took his life, he was due to appear in court for attempting to “liberate” the contents of the JSTOR database of academic research documents through the MIT network. JSTOR tried to stop Swartz’s efforts, and went so far as to block access to the entire MIT network.

Swartz persevered and downloaded more than four million documents. This was one of a number of attempts he had made in “opposition to . . . private theft of public culture . . . in the grand tradition of civil disobedience” (as he wrote in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008). The legal fallout was considerable, and the prospect of a jail sentence may have prompted his suicide. Following his death, the Swartz family blamed the department of justice for taking so hard a line in its prosecution.

Swartz lived at the blurring edge of two communities: technologists and activists. Attendees at his funeral included both Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web, and Padraig O’Hara, organiser of Occupy Wall Street.

The “Anonymous” collective provided a guard of honour (and hacked MIT’s website to call for a renewed “commitment to a free and unfettered internet”). Lawrence Lessig eulogised him as “A kid genius. A soul, a conscience.”

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