Internet Prodigy Behind RSS, Reddit Ends Life

BROOKLYN, New York — Aaron Swartz, an Internet savant who at a young age shaped the online era by co-developing RSS and Reddit and later became a digital activist, has committed suicide.

Swartz’s body was found Friday evening in Brooklyn, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman with the New York medical examiner’s office. The 26-year-old had hanged himself in his apartment.

His family and partner said they were “in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.”

“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable — these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter,” they said in a statement. “We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.”

A prodigy, Swartz was behind some of the Internet’s defining moments, soaring to heights that many developers only dream of. At the same time, he was plagued by legal problems arising from his aggressive activism, and he was also known to suffer depression, a personal matter that he publicly revealed on his blog.

Technology activist Cory Doctorow met Swartz when he was 14 or 15, Doctorow said on his blog.

“In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society,” Doctorow wrote.

“But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years,” Doctorow blogged. He added that “whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever.”

At age 14, Swartz co-wrote the RSS specification.

He was later admitted to Stanford University, but dropped out after a year because, as he wrote in a blog post, “I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.”

What he did next was help develop Reddit, the social news website that was eventually bought by heavyweight publisher Conde Nast in 2006.

Swartz then engaged in Internet digital activism, co-founding Demand Progress, a political action group that campaigns against Internet censorship.

But he pushed the legal limits, allegedly putting him on the wrong side of the law.

In 2011, he was arrested in Boston for alleged computer fraud and illegally obtaining documents from protected computers. He was later indicted in an incident in which he allegedly stole millions of online documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He pleaded not guilty in September, according to MIT’s “The Tech” newspaper.

Two years earlier, the FBI investigated him after he released millions of U.S. federal court documents online. The alleged hacking was significant because the documents came from the government-run Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER, which typically charges a fee, which was 8 cents a page in 2009.

No charges were filed in that case, but on October 5, 2009, he posted online his FBI file that he apparently requested from the agency. He redacted the FBI agents’ names and his personal information, he said.

In that file, the FBI said more than 18 million pages with a value of about $1.5 million were downloaded from PACER in September 2008 to Swartz’s home in Highland Park, Illinois.

“As I hoped, it’s truly delightful,” he wrote of his FBI file.

Swartz’s family and partner recalled his “commitment to social justice,” and called his death “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.” They criticized U.S. prosecutors for seeking “an exceptionally harsh array of charges (for) an alleged crime that had no victims,” and MIT because it did not “stand up for Aaron.”

“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” they said.

Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment on Swartz’s case, citing respect for the family.

His funeral will be held Tuesday at a synagogue in Highland Park.

Swartz, who completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption, frequently blogged about his life, success and personal struggles. In some instances, he wrote about death.

“There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent,” he wrote in a 2007 post titled “A Moment Before Dying.”

On November 27, 2007, he blogged about “depressed mood.”

“Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. Your face falls. Perhaps you cry. You feel worthless. You wonder whether it’s worth going on,” he wrote.

“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.

“At best, you tell yourself that your thinking is irrational, that it is simply a mood disorder, that you should get on with your life. But sometimes that is worse. You feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms,” he wrote.

CNN

10 comments

  • One man one voice

    Another crooked Jew! What a shocker! Ironically, he completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

    • KamilPerevin

      I just got paid $6784 working off my laptop this month. And if you think that's cool, my divorced friend has twin toddlers and made over $9k her first month. It feels so good making so much money when other people have to work for so much less. This is what I do, Rich45.ℂOM

  • erinlansing2012

    It is written God is no respecter of persons therefore Jew or Gentile – this has no relevance. Those who have no fault whatsoever, cast the first stone sir. I believe this young man had some insider info and was making the powers that be sweat. He was seeking to find more freedom and justice and perhaps lost hope in this as events unfolded. A tragic loss indeed.

  • backatya

    I am truly moved! The depression is not a joke, no matter who you are. It is an uncontrolled lion that moves to devour whomever it wants and no amount of drugs can spare one from this lion. I am so moved by what he wrote about his depression, "A moment before dying:" No one is spared. But just hold on, lay low, like a prey playing dead, and maybe it too that lion will pass!

  • David

    Right, another crooked Jew? Not only are your faceless words and thoughts beyond reproach, but you're
    Idiotic terminology "crooked Jew" a throw back to anti-Semitic remarks that made this world a horrible place to be if you we're not of the main stream beliefs of the time. It's people like you that propel racism
    and blame for your own shortcomings rather than understand that you yourself are the problem yet haven't the wherewithal to be man enough to admit it.

    • One man one voice

      Really? You sound like an angry Jew. I have a therapy for you, go count and recount your money. You'll feel better. I am not an anti Semite, just an anti crook.

  • John Dingler, artist

    Big government goes after him for not paying the 9¢/page fee for documents for which my and your heavy tax burden has already paid, so the pages should be freely available, this, especially if the job for the distribution of those pages is taken over by the requestor, Mr. Swartz, thus eliminating the need for the gov. to do that labor.

    Once again, mostly the wealthy can afford to pay millions for documents which otherwise belong to the people for no additional cost to the citizen.

    Also, that documents are limited in size to the size of paper documents makes no sense when in electronic form; The 8.5" x 11" (or 14"), I don't know, size is a vestigial legacy from the previous era when the printer could print only that size. Now the paper size has nearly no limits. This means that, if there should be a charge (which there should not), it could conceivably mean that the fee should be only ¢9 if all of the downloaded documents were downloaded in one fell swoop.

    I can only conclude that the big gub'mnt engaged in a fraudulent practice and that the people's representative, Swartz, worked for the people, not for the US Congress nor for its National Security Police State Apparatus.

    I suggest that the people begin to look for, and extoll the virtues of, heroic individuals outside of the US gov. and outside of the US Congress, since the latter two passed the US Patriot Act and the two NDAAs which declare martial law and make each individual in the US a terrorist suspect which we are not, and which indeed replaced the US Constitution.

  • Patricia R. Burnett

    until I saw the bank draft saying $4410, I be certain that my friend was like actually earning money part-time on their laptop.. there neighbour had bean doing this for only 6 months and by now repayed the mortgage on their apartment and bourt a new Citroën DS. read more at, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT (Click on menu "Home" for more information)

  • John Dingler, artist

    There is absolutely no proof that he is a Jew, nor is there any proof that he's "crooked." He could be Catholic and could have held the highest ethical and moral standards, thus making him honest. So, for you to call him a "crooked Jew," has no foundation, thus making your comment an ad hominem attack, hence illogical.

    We wonder how many times during a typical day you make such illogical comments? An estimate would be OK.

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