Even as an eighth-grader in Winnetka, Aaron Swartz showed signs of the computer wizardry that would lead to his Internet activism and development of software used by websites worldwide.
But the Highland Park native who had attended North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka and as a 13-year-old had created an online public encyclopedia for a school competition got into trouble as an adult.
He faced trial in April on federal charges that he had illegally downloaded millions of journal articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the intention of posting them to a file-sharing site.
The prospect of the trial was too much for him, his family said. Swartz, 26, committed suicide inside his New York apartment, authorities said Saturday.
In a statement sent through a spokesman, his family said Swartz hanged himself the day before out of worry that he faced more than 30 years in federal prison.
“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,” the statement in part read.
Along with developing an early version of rich site summary, or RSS, technology, Swartz is credited with co-founding the popular Reddit website that allows users to vote for their favorite news stories of the day.
Increasingly active in efforts to make information more readily available on the Internet, he also founded Demand Progress, a lobbying group that advocates for civil liberties and government reform.
In that role, Swartz led a successful effort to stymie the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2011, which sought to restrict access to websites that illegally shared copyrighted property. The bill was eventually withdrawn after widespread protests.
“He refined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement,” said David Moon, program director for Demand Progress. “He was ultimately pretty brilliant at that.”
On Saturday, Swartz’s death spurred an outpouring of sympathy and tributes throughout social media, many of which hailed his multiple accomplishments at a young age.
Several commenters heaped scorn upon federal prosecutors in Massachusetts for indicting Swartz in 2011. He was accused of downloading millions of academic journal articles and breaking into a university closet to plug into the school’s computer network, which prompted charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes. Swartz had pleaded not guilty.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts declined to comment, citing the family’s privacy.
Moon, who met Swartz in 2010 and last saw him about a month ago, declined to speak in detail about the circumstances surrounding his death.
“The stresses he was facing was obvious, and those who know him can attest to that,” Moon said.
Tribune wire services contributed.
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