Aaron Swartz, a wizardly programmer who as a teenager helped to develop a code that provided a format for delivering regularly changing Web content to users and who later became a crusader to make that information free, was found dead Friday in his New York apartment. He was 26.
An uncle, Michael Wolf, said Mr. Swartz had apparently hanged himself, and that a friend of Mr. Swartz’s had discovered the body.
At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only online service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloaded 4.8 million articles and other documents, nearly the entire library.
Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of his death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
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“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy.”
Wolf, his uncle, said he would remember Mr. Swartz as a young man who “looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.”
The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, first reported the death.
Mr. Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organizations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
He formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social-justice issues, including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill.
But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on PACER — or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like Carl Malamud, the founder of public.resource.org, have long argued such documents should be free since they are produced at public expense. Mr. Swartz wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.
In the PACER exploit, the federal government decided not to prosecute.
In 2011, however, Mr. Swartz went beyond that, according to a federal indictment. In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by means that included breaking into a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university computer network under a false account, federal officials said.
JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz pressed on, saying: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
On Wednesday, JSTOR said it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.
In 2007, Mr. Swartz wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from sadness. “Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel.”