RIP Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

How we stopped SOPA!

Those RSS Feeds on my blog and the ones you have on your reader? That was the work of Aaron Swartz. He worked on that when he was 14. Yes, FOURTEEN. Aaron also was one of the main contributors at its inception to the Reddit social network so I hope you will agree with me that someone like Aaron in his young life had contributed already more to the progress of our species  than most will in their entire life which makes the fact that he is no longer with us and may have been driven to his early dead by relentless abuse and bullying by the powers that be all he more cruel and unforgivable.

Remember the SOPA bill, the one that would not just stop you from downloading Hollywood movies and tophits but which would bring down the internet as a meaningful way to connect with other human beings around the globe? Well, it was mostly thanks to Aaron Swartz that bill was not passed.

And yesterday he was founded hanged in his Apartment.

I’m sure we will hear more about the details of his “suicide” later but for now I would like to pay homage to one of the most courageous young man of recent years and how he might have been driven to take his own life because while he had a known history of battling depression here are some of the circumstances which might have driven this amazing young man over the edge:

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Aaron Swartz was an American success story. A talented kid he worked on developing the RSS feed when he was 14. Swartz latter became – what every sanctimonious politician of both parties proclaim is the ultimate achievement – an entrepreneur, founding Infogami which would later merge with reddit in 2006. In 2007 Swartz left reddit and became a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Ethics while also founding Demand Progress a progressive activist group focused primarily on online organizing. Perhaps Swartz’s most famous activism was his role in helping to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

In 2011 Swartz was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. The crime? Downloading academic journals from not-for profit JSTOR on a guest account without permission. JSTOR would later provide free access claiming it already had a program in the works when Swartz committed his crime. In other words, Aaron Swartz did to JSTOR what Mark Zuckerberg did to Harvard’s Facebook – gained unauthorized access to data which lead to offering a service the university said it was already working on. And in the state of Massachusetts no less!

Like Harvard with Zuckerberg, JSTOR was able to settle the issue with Swartz outside of a court room. Unlike with Zuckerberg, the US Attorney for Massachusetts pursued criminal charges which meant Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. Maybe if Zuckerberg had been a political activist…

On Friday January 11th Swartz was found dead in his apartment. The cause of death is believed to be suicide, with a family member confirming death by hanging. Quinn Norton, a close friend of Swartz, said of the trial “it pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.” Though reports also note Swartz had a history of depression there is little doubt that the added stress of a possible 35 years imprisonment and a million dollar fine surely worsened any preexisting mental health condition. Would you like to do 35 years in an American federal prison?

So here we are. A talented, passionate, and civic minded young man is dead at 26, destroyed by state power. But instead of focusing on what he lost, perhaps it is time to think about what we lost and what we will lose if this behavior by the government continues. Do we have so many people like Aaron Swartz to lose, to throw to the wolves of the police state? And does such a meal even satiate those vile dogs or does it merely wet their appetite? A key proponent of a free and open internet has been destroyed by the grinding terror of the federal government’s justice system. Not just a victim, but an example to terrify other activists into silence.

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