Aaron Swartz's Brilliant Life and Tragic Death - Rolling Stone
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The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz

He was a child prodigy, an Internet pioneer and an activist who refused to back down – even when the feds tried to break him

Aaron SwartzAaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz

Sage Ross/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 

In the photograph, it seems, nothing is wrong. He is kneeling in the front row, sitting back on his heels, hands folded in his lap. His cheeks are flecked with two-day stubble, and his thick brown hair, often a shaggy mess, is tamed and parted to the right. He is one of 30 people in the picture, a group of progressive online activists who had convened that day – January 9th, 2013 – for a summit in Holmes, New York, a bucolic country town 70 miles north of Manhattan. He never much enjoyed posing for photos: The best images of him – like those that would appear a few days later in newspapers and websites around the world – tended to be taken when he was otherwise engaged, either making a point or mulling over a point that needed to be made. Still, when everyone gathered that Wednesday evening after dinner to sit for an impromptu portrait in the wood-paneled cabin, he was game, relaxed, nestling in with the others without complaint. Like everyone else in the photo, he is smiling.

Hackers, Leakers and Activists: The New Political Prisoners

At 26 years old, Aaron Swartz had established himself as a singular force bridging the worlds of technology and activism – a young man driven by a restless curiosity and the belief that information was the most valuable of currencies, a form of wealth no one should be deprived of. As a teen programming prodigy, he had helped to develop RSS, the now-ubiquitous tool allowing users to self-syndicate information online, and at 19 he was one of the builders of Reddit, the social news site that was purchased by Condé Nast, which turned Swartz into a millionaire before he could legally order a beer. Since then he had become a tireless and innovative advocate for a number of causes related to politics and the power of unfettered connectivity. In 2011, for instance, he successfully led a campaign to prevent the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill introduced to Congress that would have effectively legalized censorship on the Internet.

But just as his lanky frame and quiet disposition belied an inner ferocity, Swartz’s demeanor that Wednesday seems, in retrospect, to mask more truths than it illuminated. Two years earlier, he had been arrested for allegedly hacking the servers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to steal millions of files from an online library of academic journals, and the federal government had, in the years since, been unrelenting in its quest to ensure that his punishment would be severe. The case was scheduled to go to trial in April, and if he lost, Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison. Rarely did he talk about the mental and financial toll his legal battles had taken, so it was difficult even for those closest to him to know how much it was weighing on him. Two days after leaving the conference, however, he made a definitive statement that United States v. Aaron Swartz was at least one battle he was no longer up for fighting. On January 11th, almost exactly two years from the day he was arrested, Aaron Swartz ended his life by hanging himself in his Brooklyn apartment.

It was inevitable that the suicide of a young man who lived a life as open-sourced as the technologies he championed would not be grieved only in private. To read the Twitter feeds of his friends and followers was to experience the depth of their confusion and disbelief. To pore over the countless blogs that paid tribute to him was to understand how starkly his ambitions differed from so many of his peers: Unlike, say, Mark Zuckerberg, who built an online empire by corralling and monetizing private information, Swartz dedicated himself to limiting the amount of power institutions could wield over individuals. And to see the hundreds who turned out to honor him at memorials across the country – hackers, politicians, artists, writers, old-guard technologists – was to discover the vast and eclectic network of colleagues Swartz had amassed in the course of a short life. Cory Doctorow, a longtime friend and co-editor of the tech blog Boing Boing, hailed him as “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote of Swartz as a “fighter,” one whose work had an impact far beyond the insular world of programming: “Blazing across the dark sky of ordinary people, broken systems, a shining force for good, a maker of things.”

In life, Swartz had been a prodigious reader and writer, as keen to spend hours discussing the comedy of Louis C.K. as the themes in the historian Robert Caro’s books. On his blog, Raw Thought, Swartz had gained a cult following of fans of his nuanced, erudite, sometimes stubborn and often hilarious riffs on everything from his crushes on girls to his clashes with colleagues to his philosophical musings. Yet in death Swartz left no note. Not a word of explanation. There were friends who had at times worried about Swartz’s mental health, who had suggested he seek counseling long before his arrest, and who in private wondered if his death was the tragic consequence of a hidden, unchecked depression. But as the suicide became an international news story, and as the details of his prosecution were released, the swell of grief was overtaken by waves of anger, of bitterness – a collective sense that his actions could not be understood solely as those of a deeply troubled young man. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” declared his family in a public statement. “It is the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

This became a sentiment widely echoed in the days and weeks following his suicide: the conviction that Swartz was a victim of a government that has, in recent years, stepped up its pursuit of “cybercrimes” in ways once reserved for terrorists, prosecuting even minor transgressions with increasingly harsh punishments. Wikileaks claimed him as an ally, while Anonymous, the vigilante hacker collective, took over a number of websites, converting them into makeshift shrines. Visitors to the site for the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for instance, found the home page replaced by a statement: “Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win.”

Swartz himself had been among the most eloquent thinkers about the free- culture movement and the rifts it had created between old and new, analog and digital. “There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things the law understands,” he stated in May 2012, in a keynote speech given at the Freedom to Connect Conference. “Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store, or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is the freedom to connect like the freedom of speech, or like the freedom to murder?”

Though he had never spoken publicly about what his own prosecution represented in this conflict, he became in death a symbol of a misguided and overreaching government, one that believed the downloading of academic texts merited more Draconian retributions than any levied against the bankers responsible for the economic collapse. “In an age when our frontiers are digital, the criminal system threatens something tangible but incredibly valuable,” Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, wrote on The New Yorker‘s website. “Swartz was a passionate eccentric who could have been one of the great innovators and creators of our future. Now we will never know.”

Aaron Swartz was raised in Highland Park, an affluent suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, and almost from birth he began to hone the instincts that would come to define him throughout his life: the inner restlessness, the chronic need to dabble in countless projects simultaneously, the desire to organize information, to fix broken systems. He taught himself to read at age three, and by elementary school he was building and programming an ATM for a class project. “I don’t think I have any particular technical skills – I just got a really large head start,” he would remark years later, displaying the streak of false modesty that became one of his most dominant traits, one that could charm and exasperate in equal measure.


He was a small kid, at times shy, always looking a few years younger than he was. “When you met Aaron,” says Doctorow, who got to know him as a teenager, “you just had the urge to protect him.” As confident as he was about his intellect, Swartz was self-conscious about his physical appearance. Though he became a thin and sinewy adult, in youth he was doughy around the middle and reluctant to look at himself in mirrors. He had been a finicky eater from a young age – no fruits or vegetables, only the blandest flavors: bowls of rice, macaroni and cheese, french fries. Initially this seemed like one of many frustrating eccentricities he would display over the years – a stubborn refusal to learn to drive, an aversion to washing dishes and a tendency to flake out on plans as if they’d never been made. But when he was 12 he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease that triggered episodes of severe gastrointestinal distress, a condition that would embarrass and plague him for the rest of his life.

If in the physical world he could feel out of place, wishing he was a little more thin, a little less sick, he discovered on the Internet a place where only his best qualities defined him. “We were going online when the Web was really in its infancy, before there were graphical browsers,” says his father, Robert. “And very quickly we both realized that this was something that was going to change everything.” He immersed himself in numerous websites as a kid, among them one called the Info Network, a user-generated encyclopedia he built in 1999, when he was 12 years old. “It was basically Wikipedia, except long before Wikipedia had launched,” he would say later. “But I was in middle school at the time, so my site didn’t make it into the The New York Times.” The project made Swartz a finalist for the ArsDigita Prize, an award given to young people for building “useful, educational, and collaborative” noncommercial websites. The honor included $1,000 and a trip to MIT, an environment Swartz adored. At the school he met with legends in his field, among them Philip Greenspun, a professor who developed online communities. “They were really focused on making everything open-source,” says Swartz’s father, who himself would come to be a consultant at MIT. “Aaron, talking to them, was just utterly captivated.”

Around the same time, Swartz was invited to join the W3C – World Wide Web Consortium – a group founded by Berners-Lee, Swartz’s hero, dedicated to pushing the Web to reach it’s potential. “To put it simply, Aaron was one of the people building the Internet,” says Carl Malamud, an Internet activist with whom Swartz would later collaborate.

Swartz spent only a year in high school, instead taking classes at Lake Forest College and being home-schooled. He became a unique presence at Internet-related conferences around the country: the sought-after mind who required a chaperone. With a group of fellow programmers, he had already built RSS 1.0, which further cemented his reputation for innovative thinking. Lawrence Lessig, now a professor at Harvard, gave Swartz his first job, flying him out to San Francisco to write code for Creative Commons, a nonprofit that allows users to copyright their material in less-restrictive ways. When the site celebrated its launch, on December 16th, 2002, Swartz was invited to speak to the crowd of 600, which included Internet luminaries like Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. “So Aaron gets up – he’s not even big enough to stand over the podium,” recalls Lessig, “and he explains what the architecture of the site is, and the audience is just amazed that this was a 15-year-old kid.”

At 17, Swartz was accepted to Stanford, and his experience there begat a pattern that would reassert itself throughout his life: thrilled upon arrival, then soon disappointed and on the hunt for a more ideal environment. He soon dismissed the university as “an idyllic little school in California where the sun is always shining and the grass is always green and the kids are always out getting a tan.” Swartz spent much of his free time not with fellow students but with adults like Lessig and Doctorow. Decades Swartz’s senior, they were often baffled by the contrast between his transparent online persona and his real-world shyness. “On his blog he had told this story about having a crush on this girl and stalking her,” Lessig recalls. “Not in a gross way; it was cute. Anyway, he came to a reception at the law school” – where Lessig was a professor – “and I recount this during a conversation. He takes me aside, and he goes, ‘Why would you do that?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Tell the secret!’ I said, ‘Secret? You blogged it!’ He said, ‘Yeah, well, I blogged it meaning I blogged it for the people who read my blog. I didn’t blog it so that the whole world would know!'”

As summer approached, Swartz was invited to take part in the inaugural class of Y Combinator, an incubator for Internet talent. He was optimistic about the prospect. For one, he was nursing a startup idea of his own, a site called Infogami that would help users build their own websites. Then there was the fact that Y Combinator was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his new home would be a dorm room at MIT, the epicenter of hacker and open-source culture. In June 2005, he boarded a plane bound for Boston, documenting the journey in a poetic post that made clear he was not returning to Stanford: “As I wait outside with my bags the next morning, kids slowly filter out and sit on the top of the picnic table, just like the cool kids do in television shows to indicate coolness. I sit away in the shade on the chair. Eventually my ride shows up, and the group of kids waves goodbye. I wonder how many of them I’ll see again.”

Swartz arrived in Cambridge ready to immerse himself in a world that merged the seriousness of academia with the adrenalized buzz of a startup, and he threw himself into working on Infogami. But it wasn’t long before the inspiration that had carried him across the country had become tainted with frustration and needling self-doubt, something he addressed in a blog post written that August titled “Eat and Code.” After discussing his continued stomach troubles – he had recently become ill after attending a Noam Chomsky lecture – Swartz wrote, “When I’m feeling good, I’ll have bouts of just amazing productivity. The only problem is that these good days are followed by a week of bad ones, where I feel tired or depressed and can’t quite force myself to face the code.”

In November, on the day before his 19th birthday, he expressed his dissatisfaction about his efforts on Infogami with Paul Graham, the venture capitalist behind Y Combinator. Graham suggested a solution: that Swartz team up with two other members of the program, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, both a couple of years older than Swartz. Huffman and Ohanian had just launched a startup called Reddit, a site on which users vote for and discuss the most popular new stories. Reddit was off to a promising start, though the site had a tendency to crash, and Graham believed Swartz’s coding skills would help stabilize it. “We began working together that very day,” Swartz wrote. “Immediately, we could see things were going to work out great.”

What followed was a frenzied, collaborative period that has since been romanticized in the annals of modern tech startups: the joining of Infogami and Reddit under an umbrella company called Not a Bug, Inc.; Swartz moving into a cupboard in Huffman and Ohanian’s apartment; the three of them coding and scheming away and, in the process, turning Reddit into one of the most popular sites in the world, among the first to recognize that on the Internet the anonymous commenter could hold as much sway as the seasoned op-ed columnist.


The partnership, however, was complicated from the beginning and only grew more strained over time. Swartz’s contribution was significant: He spent that first month converting the site from Lisp into Python – his programming language of choice – after which the site ran smoother and experienced a surge in popularity. As time went on, however, Swartz displayed an indifference toward the project, preferring to spend his time reading at MIT’s library rather than attending meetings. On his blog, he addressed his apathy toward computing, writing a post in the spring of 2006 called “A Non-Programmers Apology,” in which he described writing as his true calling: “Perhaps, I fear, this decision deprives society of one great programmer in favor of one mediocre writer. Even so, I would make it. The writing is too important, the programming too unenjoyable.”

His fitfulness was increasingly a source of frustration to his new partners, since Swartz had been made an equal equity holder of a company he expressed little interest in being a part of. On Halloween in 2006, Condé Nast purchased Reddit for an undisclosed sum believed to be around $12 million, with Swartz receiving an equal payout. Though Swartz’s partners assumed he would exit the company after the sale, he decided to stay on when Reddit was moved across the country to San Francisco, where it was set up under the supervision of Wired magazine. Though Swartz then had a net worth that just broke seven figures, he continued to live as he would his entire life, moving into an apartment near Alamo Square with three others and setting up his bedroom in a room so small it was referred to communally as “the closet.”

From the moment he arrived, he found his new work environment oppressive. “He’d complain about how he couldn’t get his work done because the system had so many restrictions,” says his father. “Basically, it was a clash between the mindset of a publishing company and a programmer.” Swartz made no effort to hide his disillusionment, arriving late to the office, often leaving midday never to return and blogging about his disdain as if unaware in doing so he was making private thoughts public.

Among Swartz’s closest friends in San Francisco was Quinn Norton, a tech journalist and self-defined anarchist with a charmingly caustic disregard for convention. Though she was 13 years older than Swartz and was married with a young daughter, they developed an immediate kinship. “We weren’t from the same planet as each other, but we sure as shit weren’t from this one either,” she says. “He had dropped out of high school – I was thrown out. Both of us had this allergy to traditional institutions.” During Swartz’s first months in San Francisco, he would have long conversations with Norton, sometimes about his frustrations with Reddit. “He wasn’t sure if he had done a good thing,” says Norton. “He began to see it as a way people wasted time.”

That Christmas, two months after he’d started working in Reddit’s San Francisco office, Swartz took a trip to Berlin to attend the Chaos Communication Congress, one of the most popular hacker conventions in the world. On his way back home, he stopped in Cambridge for a visit when his lifelong stomach troubles asserted themselves, leaving him writhing in pain for several days. On January 18th, 2007, he wrote a post on his blog titled “A Moment Before Dying,” which began, “There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent.” Written as a short story in the third person, the post described a young man, “Aaron,” who had decided to kill himself. “For Aaron, that moment came after exactly one week of pain, seven days of searing, tormenting agony that poured forth from his belly.”

The post alarmed his Reddit partners; it was the first they had heard from him in weeks, and it appeared to be a suicide note. Ohanian, one of the original founders, called the local police department, and officers were dispatched to the apartment. Just before they arrived, Swartz snuck out to the street, and in the wake of the incident, went to lengths to downplay its severity – changing the original post from “Aaron” to “Alex,” as if to make clear that suicide was not something the actual Aaron would ever seriously consider.

Later that winter, Swartz’s relationship with his Reddit partners, always fraught, reached its nadir when they demanded his resignation. He did not protest. That April he decided to move into an apartment with Norton, whose marriage was in the process of unraveling. Along with Ada, her daughter, they found a place in the Mission District, where they lived as an unconventional family, with Swartz taking care of most of the rent, Norton devising ways to sneak vegetables into his diet, the two reading David Foster Wallace out loud to each other. Not long after they moved in together, Norton became Swartz’s first girlfriend – a relationship that, fittingly for two eccentrics, began with an unconventional pact.

“You realize this is not realistic, right?” Norton said to Swartz, laying together in bed. “So we’ll do it for a year, and then we’re done, OK?”

“OK,” Swartz replied with a smile.

During that year, he began to gravitate more toward projects with an overtly activist edge. As Doctorow would write, “The post-Reddit era in Aaron’s life was really his coming of age. His stunts were breathtaking.” Having done the startup thing, he was able to live out a kind of generational fantasy – financially independent, beholden to no institutions, free to pursue only what ignited his most heartfelt passions.

“Aaron worked on projects he thought mattered,” says Brewster Kahle, an Internet-freedom advocate who recruited Swartz to work on Open Library, a project that set out to make a Web page for every book ever published. “You immediately saw that he was genius at figuring things out that would matter to millions of people.”

But he also found it hard to make full commitments. After a year, frustrated that brick-and-mortar libraries wouldn’t share their catalogs, he was searching for his next endeavor. “Aaron floated – that’s how he worked, and you had to accept it,” says Kahle. “He didn’t ask to get paid much. He really thought of himself as a volunteer for the world.”

Throughout their relationship, Norton and Swartz had a spirited debate about activism and authority. She believed the system to be inherently corrupt and beyond repair, while he believed institutions could be changed from within. In July 2008 Swartz wrote a document titled “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which was, in a sense, an expression of his belief that organized action could work to keep powers in check. “Information is power,” it began. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.” Swartz ended the manifesto with a call to arms. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored,” he wrote, “make our copies and share them with the world.”

After a year together, Swartz and Norton ended the relationship, keeping true to their original promise, though the romance would be rekindled and extinguished a number of times. Swartz moved back to Cambridge, settling in a small apartment. Soon after arriving, he learned of a group of activists who had converted a dilapidated former fraternity off Harvard Square into an informal headquarters called the Democracy Center. Swartz set up an office: a folding chair, a card table, a bookshelf and little else. On his door he taped a cartoon titled “Grownups,” with a stick figure who has filled her apartment with plastic playpen balls: “Because we’re grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.”

He was 21 years old, eager to find a new project, and soon hooked up with Carl Malamud, the founder of Public.Resource.Org, a nonprofit devoted to pressuring the government to stop charging money for access to public documents. Swartz was interested in Malamud’s latest endeavor, a liberation of the government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, or PACER, which charged at the time eight cents a page for court documents, generating a surplus of $150 million a year from material not protected by copyright. When the government started a pilot program offering free access to PACER from a limited number of public libraries, Malamud envisioned uploading the entire database and placing it onto an independent server, one that would offer the same material but be better organized, easier to search and free, anytime and anywhere.

That fall, Swartz wrote a script designed to crawl through the PACER system, sucking up documents at high speeds. From his office in Cambridge, he downloaded an estimated 20 percent of the database, or 19,865,160 pages of text. This required months of work, though Swartz found the time to reread all of the recently deceased Foster-Wallace’s non-fiction. “DFW’s suicide hit me very hard,” Swartz wrote on his blog. “I see so much of myself in him. I will consider my life a success if I can do half of what he did.”

At eight cents a page, the documents had a value of more than $1.5 million – and the fact that they were no longer controlled solely by the government did not sit well. In April 2009, an FBI agent contacted Swartz, interested in talking about the downloads. It turned out the agency had been investigating him for months, at one point conducting surveillance on his parents’ home. The investigation was eventually dropped – no laws, after all, had been broken – but Swartz was now on the government’s radar. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to receive a copy of his FBI file, and when it arrived, he posted the full contents to his blog. “As I hoped, it’s truly delightful,” he wrote, the first and last time a brush with the law would be a source of amusement.

A year later, in September 2010, Swartz connected a refurbished Acer laptop to MIT’s terminal in Building 16, a modernist glass and concrete structure on the campus. Registered as a guest on a system he had used most of his life, he signed onto JSTOR, an online library of academic journals that universities pay yearly subscription fees of up to tens of thousands to access. Using a script he had built not unlike the PACER crawler, Swartz began to download an extraordinary volume of articles. Over the course of the next three months, he found ways to circumvent attempts to block his connection, eventually hardwiring his laptop directly to the school’s servers from a restricted utility closet. By January 2011, he had downloaded nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR’s database.


According to legal documents eventually filed by the government, it was these activities that marked a critical juncture in Swartz’s development, the moment his wandering activism veered into focused, reckless criminality. In actuality, the downloads were at the time something of an afterthought: an extension of Swartz’s fascination with large data sets, his perpetual need to juggle multiple experiments at once. Settled in Cambridge, he had been made a fellow at Harvard, where Lessig, his early mentor who had hired him to work on Creative Commons, was now a professor. Swartz was working on a historical analysis of Congress, a project that allowed him to at last explore his interest in writing, as well as his growing interest in electoral politics. In 2009, he had helped launch an activist group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and in the summer of 2010 had dedicated his energies toward a young politician named David Segal, a Democrat who was running for Congress in Rhode Island. After Segal lost the primary, he and Swartz started Demand Progress, a nonprofit promoting progressive causes, including the fight to stop SOPA. “I always looked up to him as someone who had done all these amazing things,” Segal recalls. “When I told him, he just turned and said, ‘Sometimes, I worry I haven’t achieved anything worthwhile.'”

Swartz’s friends and family only learned of his downloads from JSTOR’s database after January 6th, 2011, when Swartz, while riding his bike through Cambridge, was surrounded by police and agents from the Secret Service. A few months later, in July, he was indicted on multiple counts, including computer and wire fraud, charges that carried sentences of up to 35 years in federal prison. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. attorney overseeing the case, and Stephen Heymann, the government’s prosecutor, made their understanding of Swartz’s intentions clear from the outset. “Stealing is stealing,” noted Ortiz after the indictment, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar.”

Over the next year and a half, the government added multiple counts to the original charges, and as negotiations for a plea ended in stalemates, the situation became increasingly grim and surreal. In an online post about Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Swartz wrote, “I found it was precisely accurate – every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.” Yet in person rarely did he exhibit any indication of the dark cloud the case had become. He remained engaged in both his life and his activism, giving talks around the country, traveling to Wisconsin to support that winter’s labor protests and, later that summer, falling in love.

He had first met Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, a fellow programmer and activist who lived in Washington, D.C., when he visited the city the week of the midterm elections. When the two saw each other again in June 2011, when Stinebrickner-Kauffman was in Boston, she took the initiative, asking Swartz out on a date. Though the chemistry between them was undeniable, Swartz let her know that he might not be in the best place for dating: “There’s a bad thing in my life right now,” he said cryptically, warning her that she might not hear from him for weeks. A few days later, however, he called her, and took an impromptu trip to D.C. to see her in person. “I already had plans to go strawberry-picking with friends,” says Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “In retrospect, it was really funny that he was remotely willing to go, given his basic fear of fruit.”

As the relationship grew more serious, Swartz continued to reference “the bad thing” in his life, and in July, a few days before he was indicted, he asked if she would like to hear it from him or learn about it in the papers. “I’d been trying to figure out what it was for weeks,” she recalls. “And when he finally told me, I was like, ‘That’s it? Downloading academic journals?'”

Among the most frustrating components of the ordeal was the fact that JSTOR, ostensibly the most overtly wronged party, had declined to press charges against Swartz after he returned the downloaded documents. This at first seemed to be a harbinger that a resolution would be quick. MIT, after all, had a fabled history of being sympathetic to hacking culture, but for reasons that remain murky, the school allowed the case to go forward. Hal Abelson, a professor who Swartz first met when he won the ArsDigita prize at 13, is currently leading an internal investigation into the school’s actions throughout the process. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that had ended in tragedy,” the university’s president, L. Rafael Reif, said after Swartz’s death.

“I knew Aaron was getting depressed – I could tell he just wasn’t there,” says Norton, his ex-girlfriend. “It was something he was always dealing with, usually triggered by the issues with his stomach. And like those, it was something he was a genius at hiding.” Though the thought of prison contributed to his malaise, it was the idea of being labeled a felon Swartz most acutely feared, and the reason he rejected the government’s plea offers. During a trip to D.C., he spent a day touring the city with Norton and her daughter. “There was a moment when we were standing outside the White House,” Norton recalls, “when Aaron turned to me and said, ‘You know, they don’t allow felons to work there.'”

Swartz for his whole life had compartmentalized any anguish he experienced, mental or physical, venting frustrations only in the confines of his blog. His experience of the case was no different. The most obvious effect of the psychological grind it had become was his decision to leave Cambridge. With the entirety of his possessions filling two bags, he settled into a studio apartment in a new building in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. But in New York he was neither morose nor withdrawn, and in May 2012, Stinebrickner-Kauffman moved in with him. That winter, Swartz surprised Stinebrickner-Kauffman by mentioning that he’d like to talk about marriage. “But I want a Liz Lemon wedding,” he said.

On December 12th, 2012, Swartz met with his friend Ben Wikler in Brooklyn, and over pancakes, Swartz spoke with him for the first time about the status of the case, brainstorming a way to galvanize public sentiment. A crusader his whole life, Swartz was now a cause, a role that made him uncomfortable. “Everyone wanted to help him,” says Wikler. “When you have 100 really active, smart people who are saying ‘Hey, tell me how I can help,’ it actually puts a lot of pressure on you.” Intellectually independent almost from birth, and financially free since he was a teenager, he now found himself dependent on those around him. “His financial independence had basically vaporized,” says his father. In the days before his death, Swartz was preparing to reach out to friends and colleagues in order to raise $1 million he felt was required for the fight, and he spoke of how much he dreaded making those calls.

On January 10th, the day after the activist conference in upstate New York, Swartz was in good spirits. “Surprise!” he shouted early that evening, when Stinebrickner-Kauffman returned home, expecting him to be out. Swartz was animated, eager to head into Manhattan, where a friend was celebrating a birthday party. Swartz was talkative, engaged, not the least bit withdrawn. The bar served macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese, his favorite foods, and Swartz remarked about how the sandwich was among the best he’d ever had.

However, the next morning, Friday, January 11th, Swartz’s mood took a drastic turn. He would not get out of bed, despite Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s best efforts. “I was shaking and pouring water on him, but he just wouldn’t move,” she says. Eventually, he got dressed, though he decided not to go into the downtown Manhattan office he worked out of. Believing the worst was over, Stinebrickner-Kauffman went to work, messaging friends that she was worried about Swartz, and asking that they stay in contact with him throughout the day. That evening, the two had plans to have dinner with Wikler, but when she arrived in Crown Heights to pick up Swartz, she found his body, hanging from a belt.

In the weeks after his death, the conversations Swartz hoped to instigate in life have entered the center of the culture. Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman and chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has launched an investigation into the Justice Department’s prosecution of Swartz, and Zoe Lofgren, a Democratic congresswoman from California, drafted a bill she calls “Aaron’s Law” to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in ways that would limit the scope of future prosecutions against similar crimes. A graffiti artist painted a mural of Swartz on the side of a post-industrial stretch of Brooklyn’s waterfront.

But as his friends fight to ensure his death was not in vain, in private it is the smaller moments they mourn deepest. Ben Wikler finds himself thinking back to an afternoon in March 2011 when the two of them ventured out to Winthrop Beach, a scrappy piece of coastline in Boston directly under the flight paths of planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport. Swartz had already been arrested, though he made so little of it that it was easy to forget, and as the two wandered the deserted shore on that chilly afternoon, Wikler was reminded of an old Far Side cartoon, which he pulled up on his phone. Looking down from the cockpit of a plane, a pilot sees a remote island, where a man stands with his arms raised. HELF, he has carved into the sand in gigantic letters, prompting the pilot to say, “Wait! Wait! Cancel that, I guess it says ‘helf.'” Using driftwood, Wikler and Swartz carved the word into the sand, in letters large enough for the planes coming into the airport to see, Swartz laughing at the idea of one of the pilots thinking, for a moment, that someone was calling out for help, and then realizing he was only joking.


This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

In This Article: Aaron Swartz, hackers, long reads


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