NEW YORK – Computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS and co-founded Reddit, has been found dead weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles in an attempt to make them freely available to the public.
Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment, his family in Chicago confirmed in a statement Saturday. He was pronounced dead Friday evening at home in the Crown Heights neighborhood.
As a young teenager, Swartz helped create RSS, a family of Web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users. He co-founded the social news website Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast, as well as the political action group Demand Progress, which campaigns against Internet censorship.
A zealous advocate of public online access, Swartz was extolled Saturday by those who believed as he did. He was “an extraordinary hacker and activist,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group based in California, wrote in a tribute on its home page.
“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.
Swartz apparently struggled at times with depression, writing in a 2007 blog post: “Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. … You feel worthless. … depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.”
In their statement, Swartz’s family expressed not only grief over his death but bitterness toward federal prosecutors pursuing the case in Massachusetts against him.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” the statement from his family and girlfriend said.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston could not be reached for comment.
The federal government accused Swartz of using the Massachusetts Institute Technology’s computer network to steal nearly 5 million academic articles. The indictment alleged Swartz stole the documents from JSTOR, a subscription service used by MIT that offers digitized copies of articles from more than 1,000 academic journals.
Prosecutors said Swartz intended to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites.