Aaron Swartz, Tech Prodigy and Internet Activist, Is Dead at 26

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Aaron Swartz, the brilliant young software programmer and Internet activist who inspired awe and reverence from leading figures in the technology world, died in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, his family said in a statement. New York City’s chief medical examiner ruled the death a suicide by hanging. Swartz was 26 years old.

A computer prodigy, Swartz co-authored an early version of the popular Internet tool RSS at age 14 and would later become an early leader of Reddit, the social website that has become a locus of Internet activism.

A passionate advocate for social justice, Swartz founded the group Demand Progress, which played a crucial role in persuading the U.S. Congress to back down from controversial antipiracy legislation last year.

“Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable — these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter,” his family said in a statement. “Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound and defined his life. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place.”

Swartz believed deeply that information — particularly that which might benefit society — should be made available for free to the public. In 2011, Swartz was indicted on federal data-theft charges for breaking into the MIT computer system and allegedly downloading 4.8 million documents from the subscription-based academic research database JSTOR.

Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. He pleaded not guilty. His trial was set to begin this April.

(MORE: Reddit Co-Founder Aaron Swartz Indicted for Data Theft, Could Face 35 Years in Prison)

In 2008, Swartz wrote a program to download some 20 million pages of legal documents from PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, which charges 10 cents per page for access. Working with other activists, Swartz sought to make the documents available to the public at no charge. The government cracked down on this effort but did not file charges.

Swartz’s efforts to “liberate” information from JSTOR and PACER made him a hero — indeed a legend — among Internet activists. Swartz was an early leader at Reddit, the giant online activist hub that has become a potent force in Internet politics. Reddit was sold to publishing giant Condé Nast in 2006. He later founded the group Demand Progress, which would play a key role in the epic 2011–12 battle between Internet activists and the entertainment industry over controversial antipiracy legislation. (TIME Warner, parent company of TIME, supported the legislation, which was ultimately defeated.)

Swartz, who studied at Stanford University for one year before dropping out, would later become a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where he worked with Lawrence Lessig, the renowned law professor and activist. Over the years, Swartz worked with Lessig on several major projects, including Creative Commons and Rootstrikers.

“He was brilliant and funny,” Lessig wrote in a blog post Saturday. “A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?”

(MORE: SOPA Protests Gain Steam as Web Activists Flex Growing Clout)

Swartz wrote candidly and movingly about his struggles with depression and other illnesses. In a 2007 blog post, he described lying in bed for weeks at a time. “Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel,” Swartz wrote. “Everything gets colored by the sadness.”

In a statement, Swartz’s family criticized the way the federal government has handled the JSTOR case. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family wrote. “It is the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

News of Swartz’s passing prompted an outpouring of grief from those who knew him well, as well as from the broader technology and Internet community. “Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill and intelligence about people and issues,” Cory Doctorow, co-founder of the technology site BoingBoing, wrote in a heartfelt tribute to Swartz. “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

Tim Berners-Lee, who is considered the founder of the World Wide Web, wrote on Twitter: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

Swartz’s family and friends have set up a memorial page here.