In the Picture: the life and death of Aaron Swartz

Sage Ross / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

Photo by Sage Ross / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (click on image to see original)

A suicide is always a tragedy, but that of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz on Friday has reverberated with particular force across the internet. That’s partly because of the enormous sense of waste – he was a tech prodigy, helping develop the code for RSS when he was just 14 – and partly because the internet was Swartz’s home, where he hung out and talked to people and built things that many of us use today. But it’s also because of a looming and controversial court case, which his family believe contributed to his decision to take his own life – and which put him at the frontline of an ongoing battle over how much of the world’s information should be free.

In his own words


  • Prosecutor as bully? Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Harvard, and a long-time mentor of Swartz, argues that “…if what the government alleged was true… then what [Aaron] did was wrong.” But he adds: “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?… Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. ”
  • Jay Rosen, NYU professor, provides context on Swartz’s philosophy of shared knowledge. “This person of immense talent and crazy brilliance devoted himself almost completely to public goods— like the RSS 1.0 specs, the Open Library, and the fight against SOPA. He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars… but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics.”
  • JSTOR’s official statement: “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge… Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”