Ars Technica has the best short summary of the controversial life and death of Aaron Swartz that I’ve seen. It is definitely worth reading, if you have not been following this story.
The article points out what all commentators have been saying — that Swartz was a brilliant programmer, hacker, and technological innovator (and that he was only 26 at the time of his death). The Ars article is especially good because it presents a fairly clear (but maybe over-simplified) picture of how the events of the last couple years may have led to Swartz’s unfortunate death.
Swartz was an outspoken activist for free and open access to information — especially government documents and scientific publications. In 2010, Swartz (allegedly) used the MIT computer network to download millions of academic articles from JSTOR. I am not sure what his exact motives were. The Ars article suggests that it was a kind of activism or protest. What seems clear is that Swartz did not do it for personal profit. Also, as far as I can tell, he never distributed the documents to anyone. Anyway, JSTOR did not press charges but the US federal government went after him pretty hard. Apparently, he was potentially facing more than 50 years in prison.
At this point, it does not look like people are sure about Swartz’s motive for suicide. People have been speculating, though, that it was because of despair over a long prison sentence.
Swartz’s life was complex, but a simple summary still seems accurate. He had strong moral views. He worked for those views, and, in the process, ran afoul of the law. Legal issues threatened to ruin his life. So he took his own life.
Who is at fault here? Is it the fault of Swartz himself — for going too far in pursuit of his ideals? Is it the fault of the government, for prosecuting Swartz too hard (as Lawrence Lessig contends it did)? Is it the fault of society somehow? A combination? No one’s fault, just a said turn of events?