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Web community in mourning for death of Reddit co-creator Aaron Swartz

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The web community was shocked by the death of Aaron Swartz over the weekend after the web freedom fighter took his own life. A very young man, Swartz was only 26, but one who achieved a lot in so few years.

Swartz co-authored RSS and was behind Reddit, but more recently had carved out a place in the history of online activism, freedom and protest. The news that he has died has sent shockwaves through the people whose lives he touched the most, internet users.

"Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing," says a statement released by his family and loved ones.

"Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable-these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter."

His life was praised by notably web luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who wrote a heartfelt message on his Twitter page.

"Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep."

But while he was making lives brighter, Swartz has also made enemies. In 2011 he was indicted by the US Department of Justice for misusing and publishing scientific material from the JSTOR scientific and academic database that resides behind a paywall.

His prosecution by the authorities might have contributed to his suicide, and according to another web activist, Lawrence Lessig, Swartz's opponents had come in hard and heavy over the last two years.

"From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterise what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The ‘property' Aaron had ‘stolen,' we were told, was worth ‘millions of dollars' - with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime," he wrote.

"[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong."

JSTOR said it was saddened by the news and regretted its involvement in the case. "We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron's family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit," it said in a statement.

"We have had inquiries about JSTOR's view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR's mission is to foster widespread access to the world's body of scholarly knowledge"

Since Saturday academics have been posting their papers online, in an act of respect and solidarity. They used the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute, and the papers have poured out.

It was this release of information that Swartz was so passionate about, and it is a sad, but fitting tribute.

"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 Guerrilla Open Access," wrote Swartz in the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto 2008.

"With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatisation of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past."

14 Jan 2013

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