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Highland Park native, Reddit founder Aaron Swartz hangs self in NY in face of charges

AarSwartz posing for January 2009 phoMiami Beach. AP Photo/The New York Times Michael Francis McElroy

Aaron Swartz, posing for a January 2009 photo in Miami Beach. AP Photo/The New York Times, Michael Francis McElroy

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:55AM

When he was just 14, Aaron Swartz helped create RSS, a family of Web-feed formats allowing people to get automatic updates online from blogs, news headlines, audio and video.

The Highland Park native became an activist for free content online and went on to co-found the hugely popular social news website Reddit, later sold to media giant Conde Nast.

On Saturday, family, friends and admirers were mourning his death after Swartz committed suicide in the face of charges he stole millions of journal articles from an electronic archive in an effort to make them available to the public for free.

Swartz, 26, was found hanged in his apartment in Brooklyn on Friday. His funeral will be Tuesday at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, according to his family, who said details, including the time, will be posted on a memorial website — http://remember

Swartz’s death came weeks before he was to go on trial on charges that could have sent him to prison for decades.

That pressure may have contributed to his death, but Swartz also had battled depression for years, said his friend Cory Doctorow, the novelist and blogger.

“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill and intelligence about people and issues,” Doctorow wrote Saturday on his blog. “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

Swartz’s family called his death “not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

They said federal prosecutors in Massachusetts “contributed to his death” by pursuing “an exceptionally harsh array of charges.”

They took note of his work in “the defeat of an Internet censorship bill” and for helping “to create, build and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge.”

Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist credited as the key figure in creating the World Wide Web, posted a poem online in memory of his friend: “Aaron is dead. Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down, we have lost one of our own. Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders, parents all, we have lost a child. Let us all weep.”

“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate.

Swartz aided Malamud’s effort to post federal court documents for free online, rather than have to pay the few cents per page the government charges through PACER, its electronic archive. In 2008, Swartz wrote a program to legally download the files using free access via public libraries. The government then shut down the library access. The FBI investigated but did not charge Swartz, he wrote on his website.

In 2011, Swartz was arrested in Boston, charged with 13 felonies, including computer fraud, accused of stealing millions of articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prosecutors said he broke into a computer wiring closet on campus and used his laptops for the downloads. Swartz’s indictment said he stole the documents from JSTOR, a subscription service used by MIT that offers digitized copies of articles from academic journals. Prosecutors said he intended to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites.

JSTOR did not press charges once it reclaimed the articles from Swartz. Some legal experts considered the case unfounded, saying that MIT allows guests access to the articles and that Swartz, a fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, was a guest.

“The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon,’ ” Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig wrote Saturday.

In the past week, JSTOR announced plans to make “more than 4.5 million articles” publicly available for free.

Swartz is survived by his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman; parents Robert and Susan Swartz; and brothers Noah and Ben.

Contributing: A P

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