Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of popular website Reddit and the co-creator, in his teens, of the RSS syndication tool, has been found dead in his home in New York in an apparent suicide.
The precocious programmer and internet activist had been due in court within weeks over an alleged hack of the JSTOR academic information system, after having been indicted in Boston, Massachusetts, in July 2011.
It is claimed that Swartz had broken into the system and downloaded some 4.8 million articles - almost all the data in the subscription-only library - to distribute free. An online activist, Swartz felt that information ought to be free.
Swartz was facing charges of wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. If convicted, Swartz could have faced penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1m in fines.
It was not the first time that Swartz had tangled with authority over his campaigning activities. In 2008, he developed a program that could download millions of pages from PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records repository, which charged most users 10 cents per page to use. Swartz believed that as they were public documents, they ought to be available free of charge.
When Pacer was offered free of charge at 17 libraries around the US, Swartz visited one of the libraries and reverse-engineered the authentication process the library's computers used to bypass the paywall, according to ArsTechnica. Then, using credentials taken from one of the libraries, started downloading documents from PACER. He downloaded more than two million documents before the system's adminstrators noticed and discontinued the program.
The federal government ultimately decided not to take action.
He had also sought to break open access to academic publishing, which he thought should also be free. "Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.... We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access," he wrote in a manifesto he published in 2008.
That attitude formed the backdrop to his hack of JSTOR.
Swartz's life, not surprisingly, was somewhat unorthodox. While a precociously clever programmer bubbling with bright ideas, he dropped out of Stanford, yet founded a number of organisations, including a company that merged with Reddit.
He was also the executive director of Demand Progress, an online campaigning group that he had founded that successfully campaigned - alongside other groups - against the Stop Piracy Act (SOPA), which had been heavily backed by the US entertainment industry.
His uncle, Michael Wolf, told the New York Times that he would remember Swartz as a young man who "looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn't necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult".
In a blog post, his mother wrote: "Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful. Aaron was a terrific young man. He contributed a lot to the world in his short life and I regret the loss of all the things he had yet to accomplish.
Lawrence Lessig, a well-known academic and political activist who was also acquainted with Swartz, has also written about Swartz and his impending court case.
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