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Reddit co-founder dies from apparent suicide

14 January 2013

Aaron Swartz was found by his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman hanging by his own belt in their Brooklyn apartment last Friday. On Saturday the New York medical examiner’s office ruled death by suicide.

Swartz was a talented programmer and an internet activist. The former saw him become co-developer of the RSS technology that millions use to monitor blogs and news sites. He also founded a company called Infogami which later merged with Reddit.

As an activist he was heavily involved in the defeat of SOPA. He founded Demand Progress to fight against internet censorship in 2010, which was deemed instrumental in stopping both SOPA and PIPA. After the defeat of SOPA, he was the keynote speaker at the Freedom to Connect event in May 2012. “It was really stopped by the people; the people themselves – they killed the bill dead... it will happen again; sure, it will have another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared.”

It was his fight for the freedom to connect and against internet censorship that led to his arrest, and ultimately, it is surmised, his suicide. In 2008 he wrote what is considered to be his manifesto: “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.” It concludes, “We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

Take it, he allegedly did. In 2011 he was charged by the US Attorney for Massachusetts with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and more. He had, it was claimed, downloaded approximately four million articles from JSTOR, an online database of academic journals. He used a laptop connected to the MIT network during late 2010 and early 2011. JSTOR detected the downloads, stopped them and identified Swartz. It did not, however, pursue charges, preferring only that he surrender the downloads in June 2011. Despite both JSTOR and MIT indicating that they were not interested in pressing charges, he was charged by the federal authorities in July.

In September 2012 the authorities increased the original four charges to 13, with a possible penalty of 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines. This was despite JSTOR increasing free access to its database and indicating that the Swartz incident had made them press ahead with the plan.

The suggestion is that the increasing cost of fighting the case coupled with a diminishing likelihood of any acceptable plea bargain tipped Swartz into taking his life. “With the government's position hardening,” reported theWall Street Journal yesterday, “Mr. Swartz realized that he would have to face a costly, painful and public trial, his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said in an interview Sunday. The case was draining his money, and he would need to ask for help financing his defense; two of his friends had recently been subpoenaed in the case. Both situations distressed him, she said.”

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