Funeral services held for internet prodigy Aaron Swartz

Funeral services were held Tuesday in north suburban Highland Park for Aaron Swartz, 26.  He was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and internet activist.

Swartz took his own life last Friday, just weeks before he was to go on trial for allegedly stealing millions of journal articles from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer archive.  The charges could have sent him to prison for decades if he had been convicted.

There was an overpowering sense of loss today at the North Suburban Lubavitch Chabad Central Avenue Synagogue, where his family, friends and colleagues said a final goodbye to Swartz.

“It’s a horrible thing that this tragedy took place,” said congregation member Les Blau.  “The pain is palpable throughout all the speeches that you may have heard or witnessed.”

The tragic end of one of the digital world’s brightest stars has drawn national and international attention.

Swartz pushed the envelope when it came to the cause of Internet freedom.  Experts say he pushed the legal boundaries as an Internet information activist, believing that all data and information should be available free of charge for the betterment of people everywhere.

Swartz burst on the Internet scene at the age of 14, co-writing the now indispensable computer code known as RSS, among many other things. At one point, he formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site.

But Swartz suffered from depression, and family and friends are now pointing a finger squarely at the Justice Department and federal prosecutors for contributing to his death.  In a written statement his family blames “an exceptionally harsh array of charges” for creating a desperate situation.

In response to the tragedy, MIT President L. Rafael Reif has called for an internal probe.

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9 comments

  • sjreese

    Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

    There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

    That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

    “I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

    Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

    Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

    But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

    Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

    There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

    We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

    With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

    Aaron Swartz
    July 2008, Eremo, Italy

  • Meg

    Thank you for covering this story. People are becomming more and more afraid to speak out or speak their minds..I believe it is because of the things that have happened to Aaron Swartz and to Julian Assange. I think it is important that information be attained freely and that our government does not delay or censor or prohibit that information from being made available. We are loosing our freedoms. People had better start waking up to what is happening around them. I think the prosecutors in this case behaved badly…. We must remember what happened in Germany that led to World War II. Innocents were put on trial on trumped up charges, and eventually the need for that type of show was done away with and in its place, prison camps and concentration camps…Wake up people and know where you stand here and now. Start making your voice heard.

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