Co-Founder of Reddit Found Dead in New York Apartment - The Jewish Voice
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Co-Founder of Reddit Found Dead in New York Apartment

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On Friday, January 11, Aaron Swartz, 26, the co-founder of the social news website Reddit, was found dead in his apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. An apparent suicide, the New York medical examiner’s office said that he had hanged himself.

Swartz was set to go on trial in April on federal charges that he stole five million scholarly articles from JSTOR, an online archive within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology network, in an attempt to make the articles freely available to the public. He faced 13 felony charges, including breaching site terms and intending to share downloaded files through peer-to-peer networks, computer fraud, wire fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture.

Prosecutors said Swartz hacked into MIT’s system in November of 2010 after breaking into a computer wiring closet on campus. After being identified by authorities, Swartz voluntarily turned in his hard drive,

Swartz pleaded not guilty to the charges, but would have faced decades in prison and $1 million in fines, if convicted. JSTOR is a subscription service used by MIT that offers digitized copies of articles from more than 1000 academic journals. As an online resource that hosts a massive library of journal articles, books and primary source material, JSTOR affords both students and teachers free access to the site and the ability to download a number of articles at once before they’re required to pay more.

Killing himself two years to the day after his initial arrest, Swartz had long battled depression and at times detailed the personal struggle on his blog. Writing in a 2007 blog post, Swartz said, “Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. … You feel worthless. … depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.”

Once reclaiming the articles from Swartz, JSTOR did not press charges against him, however media reports indicate that US Attorney Carmen Ortiz refused to drop the case. She is reported to have said “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” Some legal experts considered the case unfounded, saying that MIT allows guests access to the articles and Swartz, a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, was a guest. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director at the center where Swartz was once a fellow, wrote: “We need a better sense of justice. … The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.’”

“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,” read a JSTOR statement addressing Swartz’s death. “At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”

“We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing,” said Swartz’s family and girlfriend. In their statement, they assigned blame to the prosecution for playing a role in his suicide. “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.”

As a precocious web pioneer, at age 14, Swartz helped create RSS software, revolutionizing the way people subscribed to and consumed information online. It is a family of Web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users. As an adult, he co-founded the social news website, Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast, and had rallied against Internet censorship through the political action group Demand Progress.

The idealistic computer prodigy was lauded Saturday by his technological contemporaries. He was “an extraordinary hacker and activist,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group based in California wrote in a tribute on its home page.

“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.

Preceding the Massachusetts’ case, Swartz aided Malamud in his effort to post federal court documents for free online, rather than the few cents per page that the government charges through its electronic archive, PACER. Swartz wrote a program in 2008 to legally download the files using free access via public libraries, according to The New York Times. About 20 percent of all the court papers were made available until the government shut down the library access.

At the time, Swartz wrote on his own web site that he had been investigated by the FBI but not charged. Three years later, Swartz was arrested in Boston.

At the time of Swartz’s arrest, David Segal, executive director of Deman Progress said in a statement that the prosecution “makes no sense,” He added that, “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

Other technology bloggers also paid tribute to Swartz, saying “he had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.” Posting on the blog called “Boing Boing”, Cory Doctorow said, “Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues,” And in true Aaron Swartz fashion, Doctorow’s lengthy tribute came with a disclaimer: “To the extent possible under law, Cory Doctorow has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to ‘RIP, Aaron Swartz.’”

His family said that Swartz’s funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, in Highland Park, Illinois, and added that remembrances of Swartz and donations in his name could be made at rememberaaronsw.com.

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