Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped develop code that delivered ever-changing Web content to users and who later became a steadfast crusader to make that information freely available, was found dead on Friday in his New York apartment.
An uncle, Michael Wolf, said Swartz, 26, had apparently hanged himself, and that a friend of Swartz’s had discovered the body.
At 14, Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.
Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Swartz “a complicated prodigy” and said “greybeards approached him with awe.”
Wolf said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, 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.”
The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reported Swartz’s death early Saturday.
Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organisations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics. He formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social justice issues — including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill.
But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents.
A friend Quinn Norton said recent years