Aaron Swartz, Precocious Programmer and Internet Activist, Dies at 26



Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped to develop a computer code that provided a format for delivering regularly changing Web content and in later life became an unwavering crusader to make that information free of charge, died in New York on Friday, a family member said.
Mr. Swartz was 26, and his death was due to suicide His body was found by his girlfriend in his apartment in New York, his uncle, Michael Wolf, said on Saturday . He had apparently hanged himself, Mr. Wolf said.
As a 14-year-old, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous software that allows people to subscribe to information from the Internet. But as he reached adulthood, Mr. Swartz became even more of an Internet folk hero to many because of his online activism to make many Internet files open to the public for free.
In July 2011, he was indicted in Boston on federal charges that he illegally gained access to JSTOR, a subscription-only online service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloaded 4.8 million articles and other documents, nearly the entire library.
At the time of his death, Mr. Swartz was still facing charges in that case related to wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, which carried a penalty, if convicted, 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 Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy,” and said “graybeards approached him with awe.”
Mr. Wolf, his uncle, said that he would remember Mr. 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.”
The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, previously reported Mr. Swartz’s death.
Mr. Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organizations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Mr. Swartz 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 known as SOPA, the Stop Piracy Act.
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 PACER — or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like Carl Malamud, the founder of public.resource.org, have long argued that such documents should be free since they are produced at public expense. Joining Mr. Malamud’s efforts to make the documents public by posting legally obtained files to the Internet for free access, he wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.
The government abruptly shut down the free library program, and Mr. Malamud feared that legal trouble might follow, even though he felt they had violated no laws. As he recalled in a newspaper account of the events, “I immediately saw the potential for overreaction by the courts.” He recalled telling Mr. Swartz, “You need to talk to a lawyer. I need to talk to a lawyer.”
Mr. Swartz recalled, “I had this vision of the feds crashing down the door, taking everything away.” He said he locked the deadbolt on his door, lay down on the bed for a while, and then called his mother.
When an article about his PACER exploit was published in The New York Times, Mr. Swartz responded in a blog in a typically puckish manner, announcing the story in the form of a personal ad: “Attention attractive people: Are you looking for someone respectable enough that they’ve been personally vetted by The New York Times, but has enough of a bad-boy streak that the vetting was because they ‘liberated’ millions of dollars of government documents? If so, look no further than page A14 of today’s New York Times” In the PACER exploit, the federal government investigated but decided not to prosecute.
 
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