Chicago-born Internet activist Aaron Swartz dies at 26

January 12, 2013

(Wikimedia Commons)
File: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.

Chicago-born Internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life in his New York City apartment on Friday, according to his uncle Michael Wolf.

Swartz, who at 14 co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, which is widely used for publishing news stories, was often described as a brilliant thinker and architect in the Internet freedom movement by his close friends. He was also considered an early builder of the social news and entertainment website Reddit.

On July 11, 2011, Swartz was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer in relation to downloading roughly 4 million documents from a digital storage library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology known as JSTOR.

Known for liberating public information from bureaucracy and fees associated with processing data, Swartz founded Demand Progress, which he used to fight the Internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA introduced by Congress.

Twitter erupted with the news early Saturday morning, and friends and admirers across the country eulogized Swartz in expected ways, but they also candidly discussed his fight with depression, his ongoing battle with the feds that might have landed him up to 30 years in prison and his distinctive personality that made him such a presence in the tech world.

Swartz’ Chicago connections are deep. When the FBI investigated him for downloading and publicly releasing 20 percent of PACER, a database of federal court documents, Swartz filed a Freedom of Information Act request and found that agents had cased his house at 349 Marshman Ave. in Highland Park, Ill., looking for him.

Swartz also was affiliated with many in Chicago’s open data movement.

Dan X. O’Neil, co-founder of EveryBlock as well as Executive Director of the Smart Chicago Collaborative, a civic organization devoted to improving lives in Chicago through technology, said he met Swartz in 2007 when he worked on the 8 Principles of Open Government Data along with O’Neil and Adrian Holovaty, founder of EveryBlock and another influential programmer from Chicago.

“Those principles have been enormously influential in shaping policy in the last five years," O'Neil told WBEZ on Saturday. 

O'Neil also wrote in tribute to Swartz' life, "I’m so thankful for what you did with your time on Earth. Thank you."

Swartz, a Harvard Ethics Center Fellow, was considered an Internet folk hero for his activism, technical knowledge and passion for providing access to information, and many people took to Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and Tumblr to eulogize him. 

One Reddit user gave a particularly poignant eulogy: “Great minds carry heavy burdens."

Related: 2001 interview with Aaron Swartz 

Historian and writer Rick Perlstein wrote an obit in The Nation where he eulogized Swartz like this: "I remember always thinking that he always seemed too sensitive for this world we happen to live in, and I remember him working so mightily, so heroically, to try to bend the world into a place more hospitable to people like him, which also means hospitable to people like us."

In an official statement, the family and partner of Aaron Swartz wrote: “Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.” 

The family is inviting those who knew Aaron to contribute their memories to a Tumblr set up in his honor.

A funeral will be held at Central Avenue Synogogue in Highland Park on Tuesday, Jan. 15 at 10 a.m. His family will be announcing memorials taking place in other cities here.

Contact Tim Akimoff