Aaron Swartz, an online activist and co-founder of the popular social media site Reddit, committed suicide in New York City Friday. He was 26 years old.
The news of Swartz’s untimely death was confirmed to MIT’s The Tech by both his uncle and his lawyer Saturday morning.
Swartz, a gifted programmer who started a company that would eventually merge with Reddit, was arrested in 2011 for allegedly downloading more than four million academic journals with intent to distribute them free of charge through file-sharing sites.
In the past, the 24-year-old hinted at a battle with depression, according to Gawker.
In a 2007 speech, the Internet advocate described himself as being ‘miserable’ after moving to San Francisco when his company was purchased by the publishing giant Conde Nast.
‘I couldn’t stand San Francisco. I couldn’t stand office life,’ he said at the time. ‘I took a long Christmas vacation. 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.’
In a blog post from later that year, Swartz went into further detail regarding his bout with depression, writing:
‘Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on. Everything you think about seems bleak – the things you’ve done, the things you hope to do, the people around you.
‘You want to lie in bed and keep the lights off. Depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.’
In September 2012, Swartz was charged with 13 counts of felony hacking stemming from his July 2011 arrest and subsequent indictment by the Department of Justice for allegedly swiping MIT papers from the JSTOR online journal archive.
In September 2010, Swartz allegedly connected a laptop to MIT’s systems through a basement network wiring cupboard.
He registered as a guest under the fictitious name, Gary Host – a hacking in-joke in which the first initial and last name spell ‘ghost.’
He then used a software program to ‘rapidly download an extraordinary volume of articles from JSTOR,’ according to the indictment.
In the following months, MIT and JSTOR tried to block the recurring and massive downloads, on occasion denying all MIT users access to JSTOR.
But Swartz allegedly got around it, in part, by disguising the computer source of the demands for data.
In November and December, Swartz is said to have made 2 million downloads from JSTOR, 100 times the number made during the same period by all legitimate JSTOR users at MIT.
It is alleged that on Jan. 6, Swartz went to the wiring closet to remove the laptop, attempting to shield his identity by holding a bike helmet in front of his face and seeing his way through its ventilation holes.
He fled when MIT police tried to question him that day, it is claimed.
The 26-year-old Internet wunderkind pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, but spent the next several months struggling to come up with the money to cover legal fees and continue his fight against the Justice Department, the site ZDnet reported.
Ironically, Swartz’s suicide came just two days after JSTOR announced that it will be releasing more than 4.5 million articles to the public.
‘Our goal is for everyone around the world to be able to use the content we have put online and are preserving,’ JSTOR Managing Director Laura Brown said in a statement.
Swartz’s friend Cory Doctorow, of Boing Boing, published a touching tribute in his honor early a tribute early Saturday morning after learning of his death.
‘I’m so sorry for Aaron, and sorry about Aaron. My sincere condolences to his parents, whom I never met, but who loved their brilliant, magnificently weird son and made sure he always had chaperonage when he went abroad on his adventures,’ he wrote in part.
‘We have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.’
In his piece, Doctorow speculated that it is possible that what drove his friend to suicide is the prospect of incarceration, and all that comes with it.
‘Imprisonment is one of my most visceral terrors, and it’s at least credible that fear of losing his liberty, of being subjected to violence (and perhaps sexual violence) in prison, was what drove Aaron to take this step,’ he wrote.
Stephen Willard | Elite.