Tech entrepreneur and activist Aaron Swartz, who was the co-founder of social phenomenon Reddit and helped to spearhead protest campaigns against anti-internet piracy legislation, committed suicide over the weekend.
Swartz’s death came just weeks before he was set to go on trial for charges that he stole and distributed scholarly articles form an archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He faced decades in prison if he lost the case.
His suicide comes just a year after another tech entrepreneur, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, committed suicide. Zhitormirskiy had been responsible for creating the open-source social project, Diaspora.
Swartz’s family has already started blaming US legal authorities for the tragedy, saying the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office contributed to his death due to “intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”.
Swartz was one of the founders of social news site Reddit, along with Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian. He joined the team in January 2006 after a merger with his own project, software company Infogami – which had received funding from incubator Y Combinator. Swartz was ultimately fired by the group after Conde Nast Publications acquired Reddit in October 2006.
In an interview in 2007, Swartz said he was unhappy working in an office, which led to his firing. Reddit is now one of the largest websites in the world and recently started raising money at a reported $US400 million valuation.
Swartz was also part of a group who created the first specifications of RSS, a technology which allows websites to create easily readable “feeds” of content. He was a contributor to the open-source movement, having helped to establish the Creative Commons organisation with Lawrence Lessig.
Swartz also took part in internet activism, contributing to a campaign last year to stop the US government from signing Stop Online Privacy Act legislation, which would place restrictions on certain types of internet content.
Swartz ran into trouble in January 2011, after being arrested in connection with downloading academic journal articles in 2008. He was accused of writing a program that would enable anyone to legally download files from academic article subscription site JSTOR, using public libraries.
As of last week, he was weeks away from a trial in which he had pleaded not guilty. He faced 13 charges including computer fraud. Swartz’s defence lawyer told the Associated Press the case was “overblown”.
Although JSTOR, the party responsible for storing the documents, did not press charges, US Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann pursued legal action.
JSTOR recently announced it would make several of its articles publicly available.
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