Remembering Aaron Swartz: We've Lost a Fighter

TheStreet.com

Editor's note: The day before we remember our veterans who have died to protect our freedom, we pay homage to a few business leaders who have recently passed away.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- He was dubbed an Internet prodigy. A master of the Web. The man who co-founded RSS and the popular site Reddit. His name was Aaron Swartz, and he died at the young age of 26.

Swartz, who suffered from clinical depression, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment last January 11. He had hanged himself. He left no note and took family and close friends by total surprise.

From a young age, it was clear that Aaron was gifted. He attended private school until ninth grade, before leaving to attend classes at a local college. He was eventually admitted to Stanford University, but dropped out after a year, writing that he "didn't find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies."


At age 14, Swartz began to work on the RSS platform. RSS, or more commonly known as Really Simple Syndication, is an application defined as, "a way of allowing Web users to receive news headlines and updates on their browser from selected Web sites as they are published."

The RSS application is still widely used today, even though Swartz began working on it some 12 years ago. After that, he continued to develop applications and programs before his stint at Stanford.

After he decided that it wasn't for him, Swartz founded his own software company, Infogami. Eventually Infogami merged with the popular Reddit and Swartz soon became an equal owner in the company.

Not surprisingly, once Wired acquired Reddit in 2006, Swartz found office life mundane and was fired the next year.

It was then that Swartz found his true passion: Activism. He couldn't accept political corruption, which seemed to be common across the globe. After writing some well-circulated pieces and starting a few Web sites trying to combat corruption, he founded Demand Progress.

Demand Progress was an online advocacy group that gathered people on the Internet and set up a system that allowed them to contact Congress and other leaders in the United States government. Swartz used this network to spread his ideas about political corruption, reform and liberty.

Eventually his activist efforts got him in trouble. A lot of trouble. Felony trouble. According to those close to Swartz, they believe it's what eventually led to his suicide. The legal pressure was so high that he couldn't stand it. One of his lawyers even relayed that to the judge.

Specifically, Swartz was arrested on charges of lifting documents from a database and for computer fraud. Later, he was charged with stealing millions of documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also had been investigated two years earlier by the FBI for performing a similar act, hacking online documents from Public Access to Court Electronic Records, known as PACER, which charges to access the documents. The FBI later charged that $1.5 million worth of documents were downloaded from Swartz's hacks.


In the end, he was charged with 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and two counts of wire fraud. The maximum punishment of a fine of $1 million and 35 years' prison time weighed heavily on Swartz.

While many thought that he would be able to negotiate a plea that required very little or no jail time, the prosecutors didn't seem to budge. They wanted to take it to Swartz.

His family regarded his death as "The product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. An exceptionally harsh array of charges for an alleged crime that had no victims."

The fact is that we lost a very talented, very insightful individual at a very young age, far too young to lose a bright visionary like Swartz. Still, it was clear that Swartz struggled with painful thoughts, even before his legal problems set it.

-- Written by Bret Kenwell in New York.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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