You should know that the hacker, programmer, writer and activist Aaron Swartz has died of suicide at age 26. His body was found in his apartment on Friday. Aaron was one of those preternaturally brilliant, precocious hackers who, at the age of 14, co-developed the Really Simple Syndication or RSS web protocol that is the key component of much of the web’s entire publishing infrastructure.
By 19, he’d co-founded a company that would merge with Reddit, a user-generated social news site that is now one of the most highly trafficked news sites in the world. He read voraciously, uploading reviews of the dozens of books he read a year to his blog, and wrote beautifully and prolifically. He worked as a progressive activist with the group Progressive Change Campaign Committee and founded Demand Progress, which was instrumental in fights to keep the internet open and free, and in the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act.
He developed the architecture for the Creative Commons licensing system and in 2010 he and I were both fellows at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics. Aaron and I would grab lunch and talk politics and ideas and he’d talk about the various books he was in the process of writing or planning on writing. He was a kind of 21st century, nerd renaissance man.
Aaron also suffered from depression. He wrote about his depression in 2007 in a post titled “Sick.”
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. 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. Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.
You should know if you are depressed, you are not alone, that there are literally millions of people out there suffering from depression and that help is available.
You should also know that at the time of his death Aaron was being prosecuted by the federal government and threatened with up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for the crime of – and I’m not exaggerating here – downloading too many free articles from the online database of scholarly work JSTOR. Aaron had allegedly used a simple computer script to use MIT’s network to massively download academic articles from the database that he himself had legitimate access to, almost 5 million in all, with the intent, prosecutors alleged, of making them freely available. You should know that despite JSTOR declining to press charges or pursue prosecution, federal prosecutors dropped a staggering 13 count felony indictment on Aaron for his alleged actions.
In a statement about his death Aaron’s family and partner wrote:
“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.”
You should know his death is a good reason to revisit the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law under which he was prosecuted, since it is far too broad, and to take a hard look at Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted Aaron with such recklessly disproportionate vigor, and who is reportedly considering a run for governor.
You should know that we’re going to miss you, Aaron. We’re going to miss your brilliant mind, your righteous heart and your sensitive soul.