RIP Aaron Swartz: Researchers celebrate activist with #pdftribute

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Aaron Swartz

Academics, researchers and activists from around the world have taken to Twitter to pay tribute to internet activist and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz who committed suicide this weekend.

A couple of years ago Swartz allegedly used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) computer network to download and distribute thousands of articles from fee-paying journal sites.

US federal prosecutors then got wind of what Swartz had done and threatened to put him in jail for 35 years. According to the Wall Street Journal, the activist hanged himself after the prosecutors refused to broker a deal, insisting he plead guilty on all counts.

The case was also apparently draining Swatz’ funds and caused him serious concern when two of his friends were subpoenaed.

“It was too hard for him to ask for the help and make that part of his life go public,” the Journal quotes Swartz’s girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman as saying. “One of the things he felt most difficult to fathom was asking people for money.”

In solidarity with Swartz’ actions and a free, open web, researchers and academics from around the world took their work out from behind paywalls and shared it on Twitter:

Swartz was found by Stinebrickner-Kauffman in the apartment they shared in Brooklyn, New York. Although Swartz is known to have suffered from depression, his family believes that it was overzealous prosecution that put him over the edge.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” they wrote in a statement published on the web. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Swartz had been active online from the age of 13, when he was the youngest finalist in a teen website building competition. He had built an online, crowdsourced encyclopedia, an experience which helped forge him into an active member of the Wikipedia community. He had edited some 200 articles by the time he died.

While still in his teens, he co-authored RSS 1.0 and later founded startup Infogami, which would later merge with Reddit.

In the years leading up to his death, Swartz became increasingly interested in online activism. According to Wikimedia’s Erik Moeller, he “believed strongly that the freedoms that we take for granted online are constantly under threat and need to be defended”.

He was part of the grass-roots movement against SOPA, which saw the likes of Wikipedia and Reddit go black in protest to the controversial legislation.

The innovator and activist was 26.

Image: Sage Ross via Wikimedia

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