Open-access activist and internet hero Aaron Swartz dies

Jan 12, 2013
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Open-access activist and internet hero Aaron Swartz dies

Internet activist and programming star Aaron Swartz has died, his family has confirmed, committing suicide in New York while facing a potential $1m in fines and up to 35 years in prison over federal charges around computer hacking. Swartz died on Friday at the age of 26, his uncle and his legal team independently confirmed to MIT's The Tech.

The programmer was integral in creating RSS, and created a company that later merged with popular internet destination Reddit. However, more recently he was investigated for hacking JSTOR, the subscription-based journal service, and extracting its database with the intention for public release.

Swartz was a vocal open-access campaigner, and had form in turning to hacking when demands for public data went unheard. In 2008, he wrote software to extract and collate information from the Pacer directory of federal judicial documents, the NYT reports, in protest of the service's $0.10-per-page fee for retrieval. Swartz's app snagged around 20m pages using free library accounts.

The government opted not to press charges, but Swartz was less lucky after breaking into JSTOR. Then, he physically breached security, installed a laptop running custom software, and pulled 4.8m documents from the database. Although JSTOR did not pursue the hacktivist itself, US attorney Carmen M. Ortiz didn't feel so accommodating, and Swartz was indicted back in July 2011.

For more on Swartz - and the impact his work on free-data, and the world he leaves behind - we'd recommend Lawrence Lessig's piece "Prosecutor as Bully." BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow also has a must-read tribute to Swartz, including information on the organization, DemandProgress, Swartz helped establish. Finally, Swartz's partner, Quinn Norton, has a piece that's well worth reading.

[Image credit: CreativeCommons]


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