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Aaron Swartz is gone, but his story refuses to go away. Why?

March 06, 2013|By Matt Pearce | This post has been updated. See below for details.
  • Family and friends continue to speak out on behalf of Aaron Swartz, 26, who committed suicide while facing federal charges. Above, David Isenberg speaks during a January memorial service.
Family and friends continue to speak out on behalf of Aaron Swartz, 26, who… (Mary Altaffer / Associated…)

By now, Web users should know about Aaron Swartz, because it's getting hard not to hear about him.

The 26-year-old computer prodigy helped develop RSS and Reddit; he was also a folk hero to the open Web movement, which argues for greater information accessibility.

Yet the question "do you really know Aaron Swartz?" vexed even close friends after his Jan. 11 suicide in New York, and Swartz has since become one of the nation's most closely scrutinized figures.

This week, the New Yorker joined a raft of other publications -- including the Los Angeles Times, Slate, New York magazine, Rolling Stone, and the Atlantic -- in examining his life and death.

On Twitter, Swartz’s handle (@aaronsw) has become a hashtag (#aaronswartz ) -- the Web’s subtle way of marking a death, at least when someone notable makes the transition to being a point of reference rather than a point of contact.

Swartz was, put simply, a lot of things to very many people, and his death amid the federal criminal prosecution accusing him of improperly downloading millions of academic articles has inspired a flourishing of stories, blog posts, memorials and profiles erected in tribute -- or condemnation -- for the hacktivist's most controversial exploit.

In 2010, using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network, he downloaded millions of academic articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit database service. He was arrested, charged and threatened with a prison term several decades long. A trial date was set for April 1.

Prosecutors refused a plea deal that would have allowed him to avoid becoming a felon, and Swartz had decided to mount a publicity campaign against the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston -- the government lawyers spearheading the case.

But then he hanged himself.

Several schools of thought have taken shape since his death, and they continue to influence the ongoing repercussions of Swartz's suicide.

Prosecutors at the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston have held that they charged Swartz appropriately under the law. Swartz,  in an online manifesto he posted in 2008, had argued, "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world."

Computer experts have held the case up as a prime example of the flaws in the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, particularly its criminalization of unauthorized access -- two words that put computer users in vivid fear of becoming felons if they violate private websites' Terms of Service policies.

Others have criticized Swartz for having a lack of judgment and respect for intellectual property rights; still more wondered why Swartz was sneaking around MIT's campus if he wasn't prepared to go to prison.

And then those closest to Swartz, including his father, Robert, and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, have squarely blamed the prosecutors handling the  case for "hounding" him to death, as Robert Swartz put it. If Swartz hadn't been threatened with felony charges, would he have killed himself?

"The answer is unquestionably no," Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote in a recent blog post.

The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar, who often writes about people driven to "extreme morality" -- regularly to their own detriment -- proffered a more penetrating view of the political stance Swartz's supporters have taken against the legal system after his death.

"They tell people that the experience of being prosecuted is annihilatingly brutal, and that prosecutors can pursue with terrible weapons defendants who have caused little harm," wrote MacFarquhar, whose profile on Swartz is perhaps the most textured of those published thus far. "One of the corollaries of this message is that Swartz did not kill himself; he was murdered by the government.

"But this claim is for public consumption, and the people closest to him do not really believe it. They believe that he would not have killed himself without the prosecutors, but they feel that there is something missing from this account — some further fact, a key, that will make sense of what he did."

Such close documentation of Swartz's life, to the point that writers like MacFarquhar can offer meta-commentaries on his supporters' media stance, is a byproduct both of Swartz's reach among influential people and the culture of openness that has surrounded his death.

Rather than retreat into privacy, Swartz's family and friends have granted extensive interviews and taken to public memorials and tributes to remember a friend and push for change; open-Web advocate Carl Malamud posted years' worth of email correspondence with Swartz on his website. Swartz's longtime personal blog remains online.

The amount of material and documentation available on Swartz's life and death -- the New Yorker profile details the moment Stinebrickner-Kauffman finds Swartz's body -- exists in contrast with the relative obliqueness of the government officials who investigated him.

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