Hacker, activist, Internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz dead at 26

Aaron Swartz, hacker, information activist and developer, took his own life on Friday at age 26. Cory Doctorow has posted a eulogy for his friend at BoingBoing.net, and if you’re not familiar with his work, it’s a good place to start.

Swartz was a computer programmer who burst on the scene at only the age of 14, when his work as part of the RSS-DEV Working Group became part of the RSS 1.0 spec. He left Stanford while still an undergrad and founded his own software company, and was an influential early developer of the popular news and entertainment site Reddit.

Swartz was also an information activist who often worked outside the law and suffered the consequences. He downloaded and publicly released Federal court documents stored in the government’s PACER database, kicking off an investigation by the FBI. At the time of his death, Swartz was being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in connection with his unauthorized access to MIT’s computer network to download a large amount of files from JSTOR, an online repository of academic journal articles.

Some have speculated that the specter of prosecution and imprisonment in connection with the JSTOR incident drove Swartz to suicide. Doctorow didn’t discount the possibility, but also noted that Swartz had suffered with depression. Swartz himself talked about his depression and suicidal ideation publicly in comments he made after parting company with Condé Nast following its acquisition of Reddit in 2006.