What lessons can be learned from the tragic death of one of the internet's most important voices?
Aaron Swartz killed himself last month as he faced trial on hacking charges. The computer programmer and internet activist was found hanged at his apartment in Brooklyn.
Two years earlier Swartz was arrested by federal authorities in the US as part of an investigation into the illegal downloading of four million academic journal articles hidden behind a pay wall. Swartz planned to share the articles he had stolen from the JSTOR online archive publically. He was facing up to 30 years in jail for the alleged crime.
According to his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the case left him unable to cope:
"He was so scared and so frustrated and so desperate and, more than anything else, just so weary. I think he just couldn't take it another day," she told a large gathering assembled to remember Swartz's life.
Swartz's untimely death has led to calls for changes to laws relating to computer crime and the legal system itself. Swartz's father said his son was "killed by the government" - so overzealous was the pursuit by federal prosecutors.
While still a teenager Swartz was heavily involved in the development of RSS - a service used to aggregate blog posts, news stories and other online updates. In 2006 Swartz became an equal owner of Reddit - one of the world's most popular discussion forums - when it merged with his Infogami website. He also helped set up Creative Commons, a service which aims to make online content licensing simpler.
But Swartz was best known as an internet activist. In 2006 he set free the entire database of the US Library of Congress. The information, which wasn't under copyright, could only be accessed by paying a fee, something Swartz felt was wrong. He posted it online in its entirety, free for all.
In 2009 he downloaded over 18 million pages of US federal court records that were hidden behind the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) pay wall system and made them freely available to the public. The FBI investigated but did not pursue charges against Swartz.
Despite JSTOR settling its civil case against Swartz in June 2011, US federal prosecutors continued their pursuit over criminal charges until his death.
For its part JSTOR recently opened up all public-domain articles in its archive. It has also expanded a service that allows limited reading of over 4.5 million articles to those who register for a free account.
Swartz campaigned for a free and open internet; one without pay walls and one not controlled by restrictive laws designed to hand over control to copyright holders and governments.
In 2002 Swartz wrote that when he died the contents of all his hard drives be made publically available.
Image courtesy Flickr user ragecoss.
Updating your subscription status