Aaron H. Swartz, an activist, computer programmer, and early architect of the popular website Reddit, committed suicide Friday in New York. Swartz was 26.
Swartz's death was reported by the Tech, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology newspaper. His attorney, Elliot R. Peters, confirmed it for the publication via email, writing, “The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true.”
Swartz first made a name for himself in the online world by co-authoring RSS 1.0 at the very young age of 14. Later, he founded the software company Infogami, which merged with the then-fledgling link aggregator Reddit.
Swartz was a powerful force in designing Reddit until the site was bought by Conde Nast, and he was asked to leave after having problems adapting to the corporate structure.
Maybe the most notable aspect of Swartz’s short life was his activism. He co-founded the online activism group Demand Progress, whose mission statement is "to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, and grassroots lobbying." Demand Progress was instrumental in defeating the infamous Protect IP Act, or PIPA, and Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
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In 2009, Swartz released about 20 percent of U.S. federal court documents available via the Pacer system. While this action earned him the scrutiny of the FBI, no charges were filed in this case.
In 2011, Swartz snuck into MIT and downloaded about 4 million academic journal articles from the research website JStor and released them online. Afterward, Swartz was arrested, and while MIT and JSTOR ultimately backed down from pursuing litigation, authorities continued to press charges of computer fraud and wire fraud.
Swartz pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case was ongoing at the time of his suicide.
While some have speculated that Swartz killed himself to avoid further prosecution over the JStor case, the activist and programmer made no secret of his bouts of depression.
In a 2007 speech, Swartz hinted at his depression while describing the miserable conditions he worked under during his time at Reddit and Conde Nast.
“We all flew out to San Francisco and begun working at the offices of Wired News (we were purchased by Conde Nast, a big publishing company which owns Wired, along with many other magazines),” Swartz said. “I was miserable. I couldn't stand San Francisco. I couldn't stand office life. I couldn't stand Wired. I took a long Christmas vacation. I got sick. I thought of suicide. I ran from the police. And when I got back on Monday morning, I was asked to resign.”
Cory Doctorow, the activist-blogger responsible for founding Boing Boing and a close friend of Swartz’s, posted a moving tribute to his friend on Boing Boing early Saturday.
“Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life,” Doctorow wrote. “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 s--t-disturber.”
Watch Swartz discuss PIPA and SOPA in a speech below.