The Freedom to Connect: Reddit Cofounder and Digital Activist Aaron Swartz Dead at 26
Like many others, I am reeling from some tragic news: A key member of the team that built Reddit, Aaron Swartz, took his own life (he was just 26) in New York City yesterday, January 11th, 2013.
Among his many accomplishments, Aaron (as a teenager) was one of the architects of Creative Commons - designing the code layer for the licenses and helping to build-out what has become an international movement. Here is a December 2002 photo (by Gohsuke Takama) of an impossibly young Aaron Swartz with Prof. Larry Lessig at a launch party for Creative Commons.
To honor Aaron (and to give you a sense of what we've lost), I am sharing (at the top of this post) a video of an interview from 2007 in which Aaron discusses the changing paradigm and how people will find their way through the New World of digital abundance and (at the bottom of this post) a video of the keynote speech - "How We Stopped SOPA" - that Aaron delivered at F2C: Freedom to Connect in Washington DC on May 21 2012.
Many obituaries will note that Aaron was facing prosecution and jail time - after sneaking into MIT and planting a laptop in a utility closet to download and make public reams of JSTOR journal articles.
Whatever drove Aaron Swartz to take his own life, I am thinking of Aaron's family and all who are bereaved today - touched by the brilliant and all-too-short life of Aaron Swartz.
UPDATE: January 12th, 2013 6:40pm Aaron Swartz's family (including his partner Taren Stinebricker-Kaufmann) have released a statement that blames MIT and federal prosecutors for "intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." I am not personally familiar with the facts of his case - and I did not personally know Aaron Swartz - but the accounts I have read online today from experts who did know Aaron and the facts - like Alex Stamos and law Professor Larry Lessig - suggest that the prosecutors and MIT were trying to make an example of Aaron, apparently reacting in (Old World?) ways that were out of proportion to any harm caused by his actions. Whether it is fair or not - it seems that Aaron Swartz's death is playing into a larger narrative about how some of the old rules for protecting the public good may no longer apply: As Cory Doctorow wrote in an email quoted in The New York Times today: “The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”
Here is an excerpt from Aaron Swartz's family's statement:
"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles."
UPDATE: January 14th, 2013 12:30AM Rick Perlstein has written a tribute to Aaron in The Nation that makes his loss all the more poignant.
UPDATE: January 14th, 2013 10:15AM The Huffington Post has posted a video clip of an interview with (a distraught) Prof. Larry Lessig about Aaron Swartz, his alleged crimes, and allegations of prosecutorial overreach. Here is that clip:
UPDATE: JANUARY 15TH, 2013 In a post to cnn.com, David Weinberger (a senior researcher at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society) has written the following: Aaron Swartz "embodied what is best and hopeful about the Internet: its endless information, its ethos of sharing, its joy in connecting friends and strangers, its unflinching transparency about its own limitations, its promise -- by no means yet delivered -- of a world that is more open, more knowledgeable, and, above all, more fair ... a world that reflects the values of the Internet at its best. That is why the Internet is so wracked with sadness. That is why we will never forget Aaron Swartz."
UPDATE: JULY 20TH, 2013 A July 18th, 2013 post to Wired reports on an unprecedented effort by MIT's lawyers to block release of Secret Service documents about Aaron Swartz: "MIT claims it’s afraid the release of Swartz’s file will identify the names of MIT people who helped the Secret Service and federal prosecutors pursue felony charges against Swartz for his bulk downloading of academic articles from MIT’s network in 2011. MIT argues that those people might face threats and harassment if their names become public." Based on a highly unusual last minute motion by MIT, a Freedom of Information Act release of documents to journalist Kevin Poulsen has been stayed. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly has stayed her prior order that would have released the government documents, pending review of MIT's claim of irreparable harm: "Once the Court has had the opportunity to review MIT’s motion to intervene, and has considered the positions of the Plaintiff and the Government as to the motion, it shall order a schedule for further proceedings."