Internet activist and computer prodigy Aaron Swartz, who
helped create an early version of the Web feed system RSS and
was facing federal criminal charges in a controversial fraud
case, has committed suicide at age 26, authorities say.
Police found Swartz's body in his Brooklyn, New York,
apartment on Friday, according to a spokeswoman for the
city's chief medical examiner, which ruled the death a
suicide by hanging.
Swartz is widely credited with being a co-author of the
specifications for the Web feed format RSS 1.0, which he
worked on at age 14, according to a blog post on Saturday
from his friend, science fiction author Cory Doctorow.
RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary, is a format for
delivering to users content from sites that change
constantly, such as news pages and blogs.
Over the years, he became an online icon for helping to make
a virtual mountain of information freely available to the
public, including an estimated 19 million pages of federal
court documents from the PACER case-law system.
"Information is power. But like all power, there are those
who want to keep it for themselves," Swartz wrote in an
online "manifesto" dated 2008.
"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage,
published over centuries in books and journals, is
increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of
private corporations. ... haring isn't immoral - it's a moral
imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a
friend make a copy," he wrote.
That belief - that information should be shared and available
for the good of society - prompted Swartz to found the
nonprofit group DemandProgress.
The group led a successful campaign to block a bill
introduced in 2011 in the U.S. House of Representatives
called the Stop Online Piracy Act.
The bill, which was withdrawn amid public pressure, would
have allowed court orders to curb access to certain websites
deemed to be engaging in illegal sharing of intellectual
Swartz and other activists objected on the grounds it would
give the government too many broad powers to censor and
squelch legitimate Web communication.
But Swartz faced trouble in July 2011, when he was indicted
by a federal grand jury of wire fraud, computer fraud and
other charges related to allegedly stealing millions of
academic articles and journals from a digital archive at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
According to the federal indictment, Swartz - who was a
fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for
Ethics - used MIT's computer networks to steal more than 4
million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal
JSTOR did not press charges against Swartz after the
digitized copies of the articles were returned, according to
media reports at the time.
Swartz, who pleaded not guilty to all counts, faced 35 years
in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted. He was released
on bond. His trial was scheduled to start later this year.
On Saturday, online tributes to Swartz flooded across
"Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight,
technical skill and intelligence about people and issues,"
Doctorow, co-editor of the weblog Boing Boing, wrote on the
Doctorow wrote that Swartz had "problems with depression for
Swartz also played a role in building the news-sharing
website Reddit, but left the company after it was acquired by
Wired magazine owner Conde Nast. Recalling that time of his
life, Swartz described his struggles with dark feelings.
In an online account of his life and work, Swartz said he
became "miserable" after going to work at the San Francisco
offices of Wired after Reddit was acquired.
"I took a long Christmas vacation," he wrote. "I got sick. I
thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got
back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign."
Swartz also had been a fellow at a Harvard University
research lab on institutional corruption, according to his
Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited as the most important figure
in the creation of the World Wide Web, commemorated Swartz in
a Twitter post on Saturday.
"Aaron dead," he wrote. "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."