Recently, something of an era came to an end with the passing of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, who set out with a great goal: to bring online content to a much wider audience, and do it all at no charge to said audience. But a history of depression and some recent legal troubles may well have spurred him on to end that legacy prematurely with his death at the age of 26.
According to a statement from both his family and his girlfriend, Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment, just weeks before a federal trial was to begin surrounding his use of nearly five million articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) while he was a fellow at Harvard University studying ethics. The trial, which was reportedly set to begin in April, could have ultimately yielded a sentence measured in decades and fines measured in millions of dollars for Swartz, as he faced fully 13 felony charges.
Yet at the same time, Swartz's family and girlfriend blame the system for Swartz's death, calling it "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” suggesting that both MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. attorney's office were contributing factors in his suicide.
MIT, for its part, isn't taking that particular point lying down; by way of response, according to reports from ABC News, they've launched their own internal probe of the events surrounding Swartz's suicide. What's more, a petition has landed on the White House website, calling for the ouster of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz. The petition--as do all other petitions routed through the White House, part of the "We The People" initiative--requires 25,000 signatures in order to receive a comment from the White House, and in the case of this petition, must get them by February 11. Considering the petition has already cleared 28,000 signatures despite being launched only on January 12, it's clear that the White House will be putting forth some sort of comment, though the likelihood of Ortiz losing her job over this is debatable at best.
Worse, the charges themselves were seen as shaky, with Ortiz putting forth the "stealing is stealing" argument, while others responded that Swartz was a university fellow and thus entitled by said position to access the articles in question.
Swartz himself, however, was remembered as an activist, bored with high school classes as a young man who studied logic and number theory classes at community colleges while attending high school. He had a hand in developing the software that created the RSS feed at just 14, and was working on some major projects ahead of his death. He studied sociology for a year at Stanford before leaving to Cambridge, where he worked with a project that turned into Reddit.
In 2007, Swartz addressed a computer conference with a speech called "How to Get a Job Like Mine,” in which he admonished listeners to "be curious," "say yes to everything," and "assume no one else has any idea what they're doing either.”
Swartz's legacy is already broad enough for some three entire people, and will likely only broaden in the days and weeks to come. With a U.S. attorney's job at risk and a major university reconsidering its stances on matters in the wake of Swartz's death, it's a safe bet that, somehow, something will have changed because of it. That's a legacy anyone can be proud of.
Edited by Brooke Neuman