Aaron Swartz: tech bloggers pay tribute to an internet activist

• Internet activist reported dead at 26
Full tribute published by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing

The death of the internet activist Aaron Swartz, at the age of 26, prompted a stream of tributes from major figures in his field. Swartz was reported to have killed himself in New York City on Friday.

The author and blogger Cory Doctorow wrote an extensive tribute entitled RIP, Aaron Swartz, which he published on boingboing.net under a disclaimer waiving “all copyright and related or neighboring rights” “to the extent possible under law”. In the lengthy tribute, Doctorow wrote:

My friend Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday, Jan 11. He was 26. I got woken up with the news about an hour ago. I’m still digesting it – I suspect I’ll be digesting it for a long time – but I thought it was important to put something public up so that we could talk about it. Aaron was a public guy.

…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.

…His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.

He also founded a group called DemandProgress, which used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights…

…Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.

Somewhere in there, Aaron’s recklessness put him right in harm’s way. Aaron snuck into MIT and planted a laptop in a utility closet, used it to download a lot of journal articles (many in the public domain), and then snuck in and retrieved it. This sort of thing is pretty par for the course around MIT, and though Aaron wasn’t an MIT student, he was a fixture in the Cambridge hacker scene, and associated with Harvard, and generally part of that gang, and Aaron hadn’t done anything with the articles (yet), so it seemed likely that it would just fizzle out.

Instead, they threw the book at him. Even though MIT and JSTOR (the journal publisher) backed down, the prosecution kept on. I heard lots of theories: the feds who’d tried unsuccessfully to nail him for the PACER/RECAP stunt had a serious hate-on for him; the feds were chasing down all the Cambridge hackers who had any connection to Bradley Manning in the hopes of turning one of them, and other, less credible theories. A couple of lawyers close to the case told me that they thought Aaron would go to jail.

This morning, a lot of people are speculating that Aaron killed himself because he was worried about doing time. That might be so. 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.

But Aaron was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years. He’d written about the subject publicly, and talked about it with his friends.

…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. My condolences to his friends, especially Quinn and Lisa, and the ones I know and the ones I don’t, and to his comrades at DemandProgress. To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.

Goodbye, Aaron.

The tech blogger Joey deVilla also wrote a tribute to Swartz, which was published on his blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the Twenty-First Century. DeVilla, like Doctorow, suggested that a fear of imprisonment may have contributed to Swartz’s death. He wrote: “I believe, as does Cory, that the fear of imprisonment for a period longer than his lifespan to date, for doing the right thing, helped drive him to despair and to take his own life.”

DeVilla also wrote:

Aaron was a mere 26 years old, and he’d been doing all sorts of things on the Internet for at least a decade already. When most of us were still playing with toys, he was already playing with code and becoming an adept Python programmer, whose code showed an appreciation for clear, reasoned thinking. At the age of 14, he co-authored the specification for RSS 1.0, which specified how posts on blogs and other new sources get syndicated; even today, this blog uses an RSS feed…

…The time for anger and resulting constructive action will come, but for me, it’s not that time yet. For now, it’s time for those of us who knew him to remember the young man we knew and admire. This is my tribute to Aaron.

Larry Lessig, a Harvard professor and founder of the nonprofit Creative Commons, wrote a piece on his blog discussing the MIT and JSTOR case and entitled Prosecutor as Bully. Lessig wrote:

Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice…

…As I said when I wrote about the case (when obligations required I say something publicly), if what the government alleged was true – and I say “if” because I am not revealing what Aaron said to me then – then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong. The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine.

But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? Was Aaron a terrorist? Or a cracker trying to profit from stolen goods? Or was this something completely different?

The historian and journalist Rick Perlstein contributed a tribute to the Nation, in which he wrote:

I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us. I like what the blogger Lambert Strether wrote on my Facebook page (in Aaron’s memory, friend me!): “Our society should be selecting for the Aaron Swartz’s of this world. Instead, generous and ethical behavior, especially when combined with technical brilliance, turns out to be maladaptive, indeed lethal. If Swartz had been Wall Street’s youngest investment banker, he would be alive today.”

Other tributes, including a statement from Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, were made through Twitter.

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