Hacker, Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide

Hacker, Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide

Summary: Aaron Swartz, hacker and information activist and Reddit cofounder, has committed suicide at age 26. UPDATED: Pirate Bay JSTOR torrent, public.resource.org memorial.


Reddit, Creative Commons and Demand Progress co-founder Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York City on Friday, Jan. 11. He was 26 years old.

The tragedy was confirmed to MIT's The Tech by Swarz's uncle, and also his attorney.

This post has been updated to reflect public.resource.org going dark in mourning, and the extremely moving sharing of the JSTOR torrent on Pirate Bay to honor Swartz's memory.

Dedicated to the free and open Internet

Swartz was dedicated to sharing data and information online. He worked tirelessly to develop and popularize standards for free and open information sharing.

He co-authored RSS 1.0, developed the site theinfo.orgreleased the Python framework he developed web.py as free software, he co-founded Creative Commons, and he was a member of the Harvard University Ethics Center Lab.

Swartz co-founded Demand Progress, which launched the primary campaign against Internet censorship bills (SOPA/PIPA). His work on Reddit enabled millions to share information and news socially (Swartz sold Infogami to Reddit).

Aaron Swartz was facing a potential sentence of dozens of years in prison for allegedly trying to make MIT academic journal articles public.

Charged with felony hacking

In September 2012, Aaron Swartz was charged with thirteen counts of felony hacking.

In July 2011 Swartz was arrested for allegedly scraping 4 million MIT papers from the JSTOR online journal archive.

He appeared in court in Sept. 2012 and pled not guilty.

Swartz's subsequent struggle for money to offset legal fees to fight the Department of Justice and stay afloat was no secret.

After the September charges came down, the wife of Creative Commons founder Larry Lessig - social justice lawyer Bettina Neuefeind - established and organized the site free.aaronsw.com to raise money for his defense.

Demand Progress - itself an organization focused on online campaigns dedicated to fighting for civil liberties, civil rights, and progressive government reform - compared The Justice Department's indictment of Swartz to "trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

Swartz's suicide came two days after JSTOR announced it is releasing "more than 4.5 million articles" to the public. 

Our goal is for everyone around the world to be able to use the content we have put online and are preserving. --Laura Brown, JSTOR Managing Director.

According to TechDirt, the charges against Swartz had too many unsanswered questions,

It doesn't looked like Swartz actually "hacked" into anything. He went onto MIT's campus and logged in as a guest, as MIT allows.

Now, it does appear that JSTOR and MIT took somewhat weak efforts to block him from mass downloading JSTOR works, and Aaron took rather trivial measures to get around that (change the IP, change the MAC address). The government is using that to suggest malicious intent. 

Wired details that many of the charges were based on alleged Terms of Service violations, and suggests the DoJ may have been attempting to make an example of Swartz, explaining,

The case tests the reach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was passed in 1984 to enhance the government’s ability to prosecute hackers who accessed computers to steal information or to disrupt or destroy computer functionality.

The government, however, has interpreted the anti-hacking provisions to include activities such as violating a website’s terms of service or a company’s computer usage policy, a position a federal appeals court in April said means “millions of unsuspecting individuals would find that they are engaging in criminal conduct.”

It's impossible not to think that Swartz's Justice Department indictment may have contributed strongly to Friday's tragedy.

Swartz's last published blog post discusses the struggle against institutional corruption in the premise of The Dark Knight, and could be seen as a parallel with the DoJ's campaign against him.

He also wrote a significant amount about working toward optimism, such as getting better at life, where he encouraged readers to 'cherish mistakes.'

The impact of Aaron Swartz on the free and open Internet can not be underestimated.

He will be terribly missed.

aaron swartz dark

Image of Aaron Swartz: Wikimedia Commons.

See also: Tech's Relationship with Depression, Suicide and Asperger's

Topics: Security, Government US, Legal

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  • Don't take this the wrong way but...

    Don't take this the wrong way but, you guys covered an awful lot of Apple articles (not just Apple but, you get the point) and there was hardly a mention of this guy and his free.aaronsw.com site...

    I'm not blaming anyone here but, I would have donated money given the details of the case, had I known more about it.
    • Yeah

      Yeah - apparently this guy was supposedly a big deal.

      . . . AFTER his death.

      Before his death, you almost never read his name in a ZDNet article. A quick search (for "Aaron Swartz" in ZDNet's own search engine) reveals he was referred to in only two other ZDNet articles:

      - Once when he hacked MIT.
      - Once in a random quote.

      Two other articles appeared in the search, but were false positives:

      - Once in the "featured articles" at the bottom (linking to this article).
      - Once in a talkback.

      For a guy who was supposedly such a big deal, why did ZDNet not write more?

      Confirms how lousy tech journalism has become, sigh.
      • Dedicated?

        I keep hearing about what a "dedicated activist" Aaron Schwartz was. I just want to say that a dedicated man would have fought for what he believed in regardless of the consequences, no matter how tough it became. Aaron didn't. He took the selfish way out.
  • hmmm

    You sure it was a suicide? Being that he wrote about cherishing mistakes and optimism, it seems odd that he would just "commit suicide". Somthing wrong here...
    Victoria Halcrow
    • I doubt anybody's telling the whole story.

      My research indicates that they're leaving out a lot of important stuff from the legal proceedings.

      I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't also leaving out a lot of stuff about his personal life.

      Nobody's giving us the whole story.
      • edit button . . .

        I wouldn't be surprised if they *were* also leaving out a lot of stuff about his personal life.

        Oh, for the days of having an edit button again -_-.
    • Well, I hope you're not proposing the government had him suicided

      From reading the article, it's such a small potatos kind of thing, and hardly of notice.

      Are you proposing he may have suffered from something like clinical depression? That could be a real possibilty, and an issue not being mentioned.
      NoMore MicrosoftEver
      • I think it highly likely

        Committing suicide because one is facing prosecution on a hacking charge doesn't sound like something people normally do.

        And asking for 35 years on something like this would be risking jury nullification, which is not something prosecutors like to do.
        John L. Ries
        • You think it's highly likely he was murdered,

          and made to look like suicide? I really doubt that's the case. Not every death that happens when the government is involved with the person in some way is not the government fault. Why bring that level of scrutiny to something that even the respondants here on this tech site said they never even heard of? The government is smarter then that.

          Committing suicide because one is facing prosecution on a hacking charge doesn't sound like something people normally do, and yet theer have been successful people throughout the years, both famous and unfamous that have committed suicide while having it all.

          Clinical depression for one can drive even those with the tiniest of issues to do erratic things because that depression amplifies the issue into something major in their minds.

          No, this is not a government hit or anything like that, I certain of that. Was their an underlying medical issue that wasn't noticed, I'm going to say yes, I think that's the case.
          NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • ...

            Does there need to be an underlying issue? Don't turn this into some moronic plea against mental illness. It's normal, and natural, for someone to become depressed and distraught under those circumstances. They were destroying his life, and he was looking at 20 - 30 years in prison for trying to help people - people who didn't even bother to come to his aid when he needed it. That's no disease, that's being human.
            Michael MacDonald
          • Then the government didn't kill him?

            I was responding to the notion that the government offed the guy making it look like a suicide, which I don't think is the case. And it's not some moronic plea against mental illness, like you're saying. That was a moronic statemnet on you part. I was writing to the context to the statemnets posted that the first and second users wrote:

            You sure it was a suicide? Being that he wrote about cherishing mistakes and optimism, it seems odd that he would just "commit suicide". Somthing wrong here...


            I wouldn't be surprised if they were also leaving out a lot of stuff about his personal life.

            If that's the case, in the context of those two questions, then I'd go with the personal life thing over government assisination squad.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
        • ...

          No, it is something a normal, sane person may do. Asking for 35 years on something like this? Well, they did it, didn't they?
          Michael MacDonald
          • Asking and getting are two different things.

            Would he have gotten 35 years? Or 1 year and probation? He didn't know, and yet he assumed the worst and killed himself, even after so, so many others hackers got far less then what the government asked.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
        • It sounds like he DID suffer from depression

          So I would say its HIGHLY likely he really did take his own life, not the government.


          Doctorow wrote that Swartz had "problems with depression for many years."

          Swartz himself described his struggles with dark feelings.
          William Farrel
        • What is normal?

          More and more people today are ending their lives, and for far less. I think it would be fair to say that given the charges he was facing---justified or not---it is conceivable that everything that gave him his identity was being challenged, and confiscated, and that the token of his worth would end in incarceration for an extended period of time---something he was unwilling to see as fair trade. The things of yesterday that people did not think twice about are scrutinized today to the point of absurdity---lacking common sense or sober judgment. Every trivial matter is prosecuted---judged harshly by those with authority who have no right to have it, who lack mercy, and who smile as wolves dressed in sheep's clothing without a single regard for their neighbor in trouble. Today's "servants" serve only themselves believing they are doing good deeds for others. Everybody is trying change everybody else, but will not lift a finger to change himself. Obviously this is a broad statement applying to many, but not all.
      • Sounds like he suffered from depression


        Doctorow wrote that Swartz had "problems with depression for many years."

        Swartz himself described his struggles with dark feelings.

        In an online account of his life and work, Swartz said he became "miserable" after going to work at the San Francisco offices of Wired after Reddit was acquired by Condé Nast.

        "I took a long Christmas vacation," he wrote. "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."
        William Farrel
    • obama harassed him

      With liberal BS and high taxes. More people will be depressed and more will die because of it.
      LlNUX Geek
    • The only thing I know for sure

      is that he was a critic of that Kill List. A major one.
  • thoughts

    "Swartz's last published blog post discusses the struggle against institutional corruption in the premise of The Dark Knight, and could be seen as a parallel with the DoJ's campaign against him."

    But is he Batman, or the Joker ;)?

    The evidence apparently includes evidence for entering a building physically that is private property and forbids trespassing. This isn't a case of merely disregarding the terms and conditions on a website.

    Frankly, I'm surprised they didn't throw in trespassing and copyright violations as well, as ultimately the purpose of the suit was to protect the copyrights of the JSTOR archive.

    In any case, from what I'm reading (some other publically available documents in addition to what TechDirt provided), they were still giving their evidence to the court - I don't see that the arguments had really started in the case. But then again, there are sealed documents, so it's hard to say.

    In any case, it really looks like TechDirt didn't even bother to read the document they so kindly embedded into their own website. And apparently, neither did ZDNet. All of which confirms how lousy tech journalism has become.

    And TechDirt makes a big whine about stealing.

    But he wasn't just charged with "stealing."

    He was also charged with wire fraud and computer fraud. The counts of stealing could've been thrown out, and he still may have been found guilty of of the other counts.

    Not to mention the law itself doesn't refer to it as theft or stealing. Even if the charge was perhaps worded poorly, the law would have still been upheld.

    You just don't break into private property and start downloading whatever data you find, mmkay? I don't really see what's so hard to understand about that.
    • Some clarification

      Some clarification - apparently the JSTOR archive is not pursuing the case, the government is.

      That explains why the trespassing and copyright charges never came - JSTOR itself wasn't interested in continuing litigation.