The web responds to the death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz

71 Comments

The open web and freedom of information in general lost one of their most passionate proponents yesterday, with the death of early Reddit staffer and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on Friday, according to a family member. He was facing federal charges for hacking into the JSTOR academic database and downloading millions of research papers, but had also reportedly suffered from depression. He was 26 years old.

As the news of his death spread throughout the web and social networks like Twitter, there was an outpouring of grief and sorrow from some of his friends and those he had worked with on a number of projects — including the early development of the RSS syndication standard, the web.py software framework, the Creative Commons movement and the W3C web standards committee.

We’ve collected some of those comments and responses here (there’s also a Reddit thread and a Hacker News thread about his death, and Alex Howard of O’Reilly has collected some tweets and links in a Storify post):

Update: Swartz’s family and his partner have released a statement about his death, in which they point the finger of blame directly at the U.S. Attorney’s office and say their prosecution played a role in Aaron’s suicide. The statement says:

“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.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, posted a message after he learned of the news, saying: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

Cory Doctorow, author and BoingBoing co-founder, posted a long and heart-felt tribute to Swartz and a discussion of his struggles with depression, saying:

“Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. 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… we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.”

Matt Haughey, the founder of Metafilter, posted a comment on his site about Aaron, whom he met while he was working on the Creative Commons project with Larry Lessig — and how at one programming event, Swartz had to come with his father because he was only 15:

“Aaron, I’m so sorry to see you go. You were an amazing person who did incredible work that helps us all out and I really wish you stayed for many more decades so you could continue making society a better place to be. I’ll really miss you.”

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, posted a memorial entitled “Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies” — and recalled working with the young man on Kahle’s Open Library project, which he helped to code:

“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change. He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication. May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.”

In 2007, Swartz wrote what many took to be a suicide note (thanks to Nik Cubrilovic for the link) after he had been fired by Conde Nast (which acquired Reddit in 2006), a note that eventually led Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian to call the police and break into Swartz’s apartment. The young programmer later explained that he wrote it while he was in pain due to a medical issue, but some friends took it as a sign that he was struggling with emotional problems as well.

In 2007, Philipp Lenssen of the blog Google Blogoscoped posted a long interview with Swartz about his development as a programmer, his work with Reddit and Creative Commons, getting fired by Conde Nast and a number of other topics:

“Seriously, though, the Web is what we make of it. We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.”

John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball also posted a tribute, saying: “Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind… he had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.”

Swartz was also involved in the fight against SOPA, the draconian anti-piracy law that Congress tried to pass last year — this is a video of him discussing the campaign against the bill, which was later shelved:

Many of those who mourned Swartz’s passing wondered whether he knew how respected and loved he was by those who were close to him:

Some of Swartz’s supporters in his fight against the federal charges related to his JSTOR hacking questioned whether the threat of jail time might have accelerated his depression, but others said he didn’t seem that troubled by it. As we wrote last year, Swartz — who had hacked into a federal database in 2009 and download thousands of documents but never been prosecuted for it — gained access to a computer at Harvard and ran a program that downloaded a huge proportion of the research papers JSTOR sells to universities and other institutions.

Larry Lessig, who worked with Swartz on Creative Commons and other projects, has written a post saying what his young friend did with the JSTOR archive was wrong — although the principle may have been right — but that the government’s case against him was reprehensible and over-reaching in the extreme: “Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”

According to those who knew him, Swartz believed that it was wrong to charge so much for access to these papers, many of which were produced by academics for free, and in some cases with government funding (Maria Bustillos has a great overview of the case here). And even though JSTOR said it didn’t want to proceed with a case against him (and has since opened up its database — at least a little) the Department of Justice continued with its case, and Swartz faced a potential 35 years in prison.

Bradley Horowitz of Google, and formerly of Yahoo, remembered talking with Swartz about his plans to use Hangouts for journalistic purposes around the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“I was really heart-broken by this news… Thank you Aaron, for all you contributed to the world, and inspiring so many.”

In this video conversation from 2008, Swartz talked about how he got started as a programmer with Economist blogger Will Wilkinson:

Swartz had prepared a webpage in the event that he was “hit by a truck” as he put it:

“I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from aaronsw.com… please update the footer of this page with a link. Also email the relevant lists and set up an autoresponder for my email address to email people who write to me. Feel free to publish things people say about me on the site. Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”

This is a photo of the teenaged Aaron Swartz meeting Creative Commons founder and copyright activist Larry Lessig (photo by Richard Gibson)

larryandme

Web pioneer and Harvard fellow Doc Searls wrote a memorial post for Swartz, along with a picture of him at a conference with Dave Winer — a conference Swartz had to be driven to by his mom, since he was only 15 — and said: “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.”

Alex Macgillivray, general counsel at Twitter and former Google lawyer, said:

A comment on the discussion thread on the Y Combinator site Hacker News that appeared to be from Swartz’s mother said: “Thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful. Aaron was a terrific young man. He contributed a lot to the world in his short life and I regret the loss of all the things he had yet to accomplish. As you can imagine, we all miss him dearly. The grief is unfathomable.”

The website public.resource.org — founded by freedom-of-information activist Carl Malamud, who worked with Swartz after with his earlier hack of the federal PACER archive — has gone dark as a tribute, with text that reads in part “Aaron Swartz made our world more free. Thank you Aaron for what you gave us.”

Microsoft research and sociologist Danah Boyd has written about the boy/man she knew for the past nine years, and how he could be both brilliant and frustrating — but she says the thing that makes her the angriest is how unreasonable his prosecution was: “He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did.”

David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has a post on his blog in which he calls Aaron Swartz not a hacker but “a builder.” And Weinberger points (as many others have) to a post from Alex Stamos, an expert in information technology who was an expert witness in Swartz’s case, who argues that his downloading of JSTOR articles wasn’t a criminal hack: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”

Micah Sifry of TechPresident remembers meeting Aaron in 2004, when he was 18, and being impressed with how dedicated he was: “I don’t know where he got the bug, but I understood it. If you have “change the world” disease, there is only one cure. And he tried mightily to change the world using every tool at his disposal.” And Dan Gillmor argues that we should remember Aaron by working for open society and against government abuses: “So amid my grief for Aaron, I’m angry — and committed to working for honorable enforcement of rational laws, and for values Aaron exemplified in his short life.”

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School who knew Swartz well, writes about some of the incredible things that he accomplished at such a young age: “Aaron was a friend, and more than that, he was one of my heroes. No one I have known better embodied the bumper-sticker motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is hard to believe he is gone.” And Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian about what he calls the “inspiring heroism” of Aaron Swartz — he didn’t just talk about internet freedom and civil liberties, Greenwald says, “He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.”

A number of academics have tried to honor Swartz’s commitment to open information by making their journal articles free to download. And Quinn Norton, who was Swartz’s girlfriend for a time, has written a heart-wrenching post about their time together here.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Fred Benenson

71 Comments

bbg

I am a neophyte at the achievements Aaron may have reached in his short life, as well as the justice system; still, I believe, at my very fundamental level of understanding in these matters, he broke the law and was afraid of paying the consequences, granted. It seems the justice system wanted to make an example of him, granted.

My comment stems from my expertise in depression and suicide, no, I do not hold a pompous degree in Psychology or anything similar. I have struggled with debilitating depression all my life and have committed many (infructuous, obviously) suicide attempts and I know this is the underlying cause of his suicide. All the circumstances surrounding him, were just triggers for the worsening of his depression, but not the reason for his suicide. The only culprit was his own mental state, his depression.

sotherantbegins

Fantastic, well written post. To lose this man is a tragedy for humanity – and the pursuit of truth via the freedom to access information. Vale Aaron

nearlynormalized

The young man/boy was fragile sometimes fragility is the enemy within. I’m sad this happened, one wishes he could have been held close and told, “This too shall pass.”

huffy

I just came across this post whilst browsing… I didn’t know who this guy was nor what he did. This post helped me see how much he has done for people and the internet world. It’s a very sad loss, he sounds like he was an amazing guy…. Thank you for teaching us about someone that was really trying to better this world.

Ashraf Kamal

It is very sad moment for us that we have loosed a super Intelligent and brilliant man before time. He was a great and inspiration for all youngsters..

williamw60640

My condolences go out to this amazing young man’s loved ones at this time of incredible loss. Suicide is never an answer-just an end. His humanity and genius touched so many lives, and I’m sure he is greatly missed. I wish him peace.

Jeanmarie Todd

I didn’t really know who Aaron Swartz was until I read this. Thanks for the lesson. Heart-breaking, tragic. Did he know there were people who would go to bat for him?

jriley94

I am incredibly sad to hear of his death. We need more ideals-based youth like him.

blakmira

What were the circumstances around his death? Was he allegedly alone in the house when he died? Where did the claim that he had “depression” come from? Suicides of people like this (destined to become martyrs or heroes of the people) are always suspect.

Abdallah Al-Hakim

Nice job Mathew of putting together the reaction to Aaron’s death. For additional comments on this sad story- here is a link to an Engagio search for comments on Aaron Swartz that I performed http://bit.ly/13vbSf5

C

You should change the title to “what like minded collectivists are saying”. It’s one thing to report on a family’s tragedy and profit from it, but it’s pretty shameful to insert yourself into a family’s tragedy, proselytize your collectivist ideology, and profit from it by running ads (and then in the comments say it’s the least you could do, as you look at your page view numbers). And it’s ironic that you’re selling ads for a company called “Firehost, Secure Cloud Hosting” on a tribute page to a dead hacker. You should ask the sponsor of this page, Firehost, for a statement on why they are paying money to advertise on a blog like this. Not sure you should be calling someone else a troll. Your disdain for history and accuracy also shows, as it does the youtube clip. This type of collectivism was supposed to be killed off with the end of WWII and collapse of the Soviet Union, but a subculture remains that is continuing to fan the flames of anarchy. To anyone that values property and individual rights, watch out when a collectivist starts to throw around benign sounding phrases like open, free, neutral, etc, that’s just code for taking something from someone else and offering nothing in return. The ones that know what they are doing and talking about seek to bring down the entire system, the lazy idiots who buy into their slogans because they sound good are simply foot soldiers that don’t know any better. P.S. I’m a suicide survivor and just spent my first holiday season as an only child. The young man who took his life (he did not lose his life, as you say above) is not a victim. His family is. Thank goodness you’re Canadian.

segmation

He took the easy way out! I wish we could have seen him go thru the legal system. I feel for his family and what they have to go through.

bizziecomcom

The gov’t crushed the soul and heart of a genius because they want to control us. I am so sick that this young man took his life when all he wanted to do was make our life better. Rest in Peace you man… You did make a difference!

Richard Bennett

I’m disappointed that America’s young people have such a poor grasp of the notion of civil disobedience. Throughout history, campaigners for justice and against unjust laws have deliberately broken the law in order to draw attention to their causes. If all goes well, these acts of civil disobedience provoke a disproportionate response from the government, and the campaigner goes to jail. In jail, he becomes a highly influential symbol of the movement and galvanizes society to change the unjust law that put him there. Remember Socrates, John the Apostle, Joan of Arc, Thomas More, Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, draft protester David Harris, and Julia “Butterfly” Hill? They all broke the law, all paid the price, and all changed the world, in either big or small ways. Where would the civil rights movement have been without King’s letters from Birmingham, where would moral philosophy be without Plato’s Apology and Crito, and how would the Bible end without Revelations? All were written from prison by unjustly held men.

Complaining about the over-zealous prosecution seems to miss the point. A crusader for justice should relish an excessive response, since it can only serve to draw attention to the cause and hasten the change that the protester seeks. The prosecutor is simply enforcing the law in any case, not making it. So if your quarrel is with the law, put the blame where it belongs.

For some reason, Internet protesters want to make all the noise about their causes without paying the price that civil disobedience demands; the kids want to protest anonymously by launching DDoS attacks behind a veil of secrecy instead of getting out in the streets and being counted. This is not good, and it underscores the argument that the Internet makes people weak and stupid. If you believe in your cause, you should be willing to take the heat for it.

I wouldn’t be too quick to make a martyr out of this poor unfortunate young man for any cause other than teaching the history of protest movements to the young people.

Rich

You’re making a lot of words. But if it was you in his situation, I don’t believe you’d be intellectualizing the situation so much (“a crusader for justice should relish an excessive response”). Let’s see how you relish the prospect of 30 years in jail.

Richard Bennett

I wouldn’t be in the that situation if I weren’t prepared for the government’s reaction.

CorettaJackson

This is tragic. Never met Aaron, but it is clear he was respected and cared for by many. My deepest sympathies to his family, friends & peers.

CorettaJackson

This is terrible all the way around. Never met Aaron, but it is clear he was respected and loved by many. I pray he is at rest.

thuriayaa

It is sad all concern is shown after one’s death, where were all these people when he was alive, where all these people when he was suffering from depression? why couldn’t get closer to him and give him company, and take him for a walk, sometimes people stay silent but it’s all in their head and heart that they suffer..

if you see someone silent and alone a lot, those use internet a lot are like that b/c they are trying to fill up that empty space and stay active in depression, GIVE THEm company MORE… OK

Comments are closed.