Aaron Swartz, one of the best-known Ineternet activists, who played a key role in creating Reddit and was one of the co-developers of the RSS specification, was found dead Friday in New York. The 26-year-old appears to have hanged himself, reports the New York Times. At his young age, Swartz was long a legendary figure in Internet circles considering he helped create RSS, the tool used to subscribe to information online, at 14. Swartz also played a key role in developing the website Reddit, but left after it was purchased by Conde Nast. He went on to co-found a non-profit group that played a key role in campaigning against an anti-piracy bill in Congress, notes Reuters.
Swartz’s campaigns to make information freely available had turned him into an “Internet folk hero,” as theTimes notes. But in July 2011 he was indicted on federal charges for illegally downloading almost 5 million academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription service. The trial was set to start in April and he faced as many as 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
Since his death, several moving tributes have been posted for the young man many considered a friend and inspiration. Larry Lessig, a Harvard professor and a founder of Creative Commons, published a moving blog post in which he directly blames the pending case against Swartz, saying he was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying.” In BoingBoing Cory Doctorow writes about Swartz and praises his many accomplishments, noting that while there’s lots of speculation now that Swartz feared going to jail he “was also a person who’d had problems with depression for many years.”
In the Nation, Rick Perlstein also writes a moving tribute:
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.