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Aaron Swartz was ‘killed by government,’ father says at funeral

AarSwartz whose funeral was held Central Avenue Synagogue HighlPark Tuesday January 15 2013

Aaron Swartz, whose funeral was held at Central Avenue Synagogue, Highland Park, Tuesday January 15, 2013

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Updated: February 17, 2013 6:27AM

At 26, Internet activist and visionary Aaron Swartz had long ago established himself as a hero and wise elder of people power through copyright reform and open access to online information.

In a 2001 interview with WBEZ Radio at age 14, Swartz envisioned a “two-way web” where people could obtain their own space to have their say — and well they should. He counted among his colleagues since his teen years world-famous Internet visionaries Lawrence Lessig and Tim Berners Lee, both of whom eulogized him at his funeral on Tuesday.

Yet he could also be the waif-like kid who acted his age, pulled pranks, played cuddles with his partner, forgot to wear his coat in the winter cold and rarely varied his cheese-sandwich and macaroni-and-cheese menu.

Some 350 mourners filled Highland Park’s Lubavitch Chabad Central Avenue Synagogue, with some lining the back wall and others sitting on the floor.

As friends and family remembered Swartz, a three-dimensional portrait emerged: He was human, and he told people when he felt depressed and hopeless. He made people love him because he was a “mensch” and a lot of fun. He made people laugh and he made people cry. He acted impulsively yet thought deeply. He disappointed people. He never seemed to realize how much he mattered to others.

“He was so good at solving the impossible problems and so bad at solving the little ones in his own life,” said his friend Ben Wikler, host of radio show and podcast “The Flaming Sword of Justice” and former campaign director for activist group Avaaz.

Yet Swartz never ceased amazing people with his intellect.

Indeed, Swartz’s father, Robert, said that at a school event, 3-year-old Aaron read to his parents while all of the other parents read to their children.

“He taught himself to read and we were flabbergasted,” said Robert of himself and wife Susan.

Aaron’s contribution to a third-grade assignment on banking was to build an ATM machine that spit out coupons and account updates for his fellow students. His first computer program was to solve the math game “Magic Squares” — a program that still resides on the family’s home computer in their basement.

At age 13, Swartz’s website, designed to “contain all human knowledge,” won the ArsDigita Prize as one of the 10 best non-commercial sites in the country developed by kids ages 13-18.

He embodied an idealism he admired in his paternal grandfather, William Swartz, a multimillionaire businessman and founding director of the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation.

William Swartz, who died in 1987 at age 75, was active in the nuclear-disarmament group Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995. He also served as a director of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a Chicago-based magazine that calls out threats from nuclear weapons, climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences.

Though Aaron Swartz attended North Shore Country Day School, a small private school in Winnetka, he became a teen-aged proponent of “unschooling.” He left high school during his freshman year to study on his own at home. He dropped out of Stanford University after his freshman year, where he had enrolled as a sociology major.

He made his mark in entrepreneurial ventures: He helped create Web-feed format family RSS and started Reddit precursor Infogami.

Yet his most daring stand ended in his feeling frightened, depressed, overwhelmed and concerned about its lifelong impact.

In 2011, Swartz was arrested in Boston, charged with 13 felonies, including computer fraud, accused of stealing more than 4 million articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 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.

He was found Friday after he had hanged himself in his New York apartment. He faced 35 years in prison on the charges. He had pleaded not guilty and faced trial in April.

“He was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles,” his father said at the funeral.

His activism and what friends claimed his crucifixion at the hands of cruel prosecutors and a heartless MIT bureaucracy have heightened debates about access to academic and other expensive documents online, and about how existing laws make no distinction between malicious and ideological hackers.

Even as his funeral neared, a prosecutor’s husband Tweeted in defense of his wife’s actions in the case. Unidentified funeral attendees used Twitter accounts affiliated with hackavist group “Anonymous” to extol Swartz’s ideals.

On Tuesday, academics posted their articles online and Tweeted #pdf in his honor.

Swartz’s friends and family vowed to carry the torch.

“Aaron wanted so badly to change the world,” said his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “He wanted it more than money or fame. … I am going to try the rest of my life to live up to that.”

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