demandprogressdemandprogressInternet pioneer, activist and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz has committed suicide in New York. He was 26. His family and friends blame his death on an impending criminal prosecution for downloading academic data for release into the public domain.

The star of Aaron Swartz burnt brighter than most. At 14 he was one of the creators of an early version of  RSS. He helped develop Reddit and founded the wiki platform Infogami, which is used to support the Open Library website.

Cory Doctorow blogs: "His stunts were breathtaking. At one point, he singlehandedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any caselaw they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he'd be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant."

He founded the internet activist organisation Demand Progress, whose site displays this message:

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Demand Progress’s Aaron Swartz. Friends and family have issued a statement and created a memorial page.  A memorial fund is being organized, and we will post details when they are ready."

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Swartz in action

Here are a couple of Swartz's prodigious achievements that may have been less mentioned because of the tragic context: one is technical and one political.  The technical one is at the age of 17 contributing to the spec for RDF, a kind of uniform way of representing facts and a cornerstone of the "semantic web" which stands to make the web a more useful information resource. 

The political one was to help inspire decentralised action to protect the right to communicate or the "right to connect", and to remind us that both democratic governments and corporations have no interest in protecting that right, and indeed often have reasons and instincts to curtail it whenever possible.  Here's a video where he explains his role in opposing the US legislation SOPA/PIPA.  Wendy Seltzer observes that civil society organisations are evolving an "immune response" to attacks on internet rights; Swartz will be remembered for his considerable role in building that evolutionary momentum. 

Matt Stoller "knew Aaron as a political activist interested in health care, financial corruption, and the drug war". Swartz's insights into current political and monetary systems may be useful to both radicals and liberals.