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Internet Innovator and Activist Aaron Swartz, 26, Faced Legal Trouble

January 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Aaron Swartz, prodigy co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit, faced federal charges for distributing articles from a subscription-based database. Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26. Margaret Warner talks to Wired magazine's Kevin Poulsen about Swartz's advocacy to make data available to the public online.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: the death of an Internet activist and hacker and the reaction it’s triggered about his work and philosophy.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: Aaron Swartz, found dead Friday of an apparent suicide at the age of 26, was a prodigy of the digital age.

At 14, the programmer helped develop RSS, a popular system to subscribe to breaking content on the Web. He went on to help develop the social news sharing sight Reddit. And he crusaded to make data stored in databases more available to the public.

That cause led to his arrest in 2011 for hacking into a scholarly database known as JSTOR through the MIT network. JSTOR archives and distributes academic articles to subscribers. Swartz surreptitiously downloaded nearly five million of them. He was to be tried this spring on 13 federal felony accounts, which carried hefty fines and prison time.

Swartz, who had battled depression, hanged himself.

For more about him and the reaction to his death, we turn to Kevin Poulsen, a senior editor at Wired magazine. Charged with hacking himself some 25 years ago, Poulsen knew Swartz personally.

And, Kevin Poulsen, thank you for being with us.

Tell us first about Swartz, the impact he had on the Web and on people who use the Web.

KEVIN POULSEN, Wired: Well, it was enormous.

If he had done nothing but co-invent RSS when he was a teenager, that alone would be an achievement to assure some sort of place in Internet history. But then he went on to do one thing after another.

And the thing about him, the thing that sets him apart from so many other people with his kind of talent is that he devoted it seemingly exclusively to making the world a better place, to political causes and social causes.

While other people were looking to get rich with their skills, he seemed to think nothing or next to nothing about that. And it was all about what he could do for other people.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, he helped found a lobbying organization to lobby for certain causes, like greater openness on the Internet.

KEVIN POULSEN: Right, Demand Progress. This was something that last year played a crucial role in defeating a piece of legislation that would have added a censorship layer, a censorship regime to the Internet, in the name of protecting copyrights.

If I can — the first time I met Aaron, it was right after Reddit was acquired by Wired’s parent company. And so the whole Reddit team moved into the corner of Wired’s office. And Aaron came up to me. I was an editor at “Wired.” And he asked me if he could write something about an obscure argument in a copyright appeals case challenging the 1976 law that restricted public domain material, something very few people even knew about.

And I said yes. He spent the day watching oral arguments in this courtroom, and then filing 600, 700 words, very well written, summarizing both sides of the case and what the issues were.

This was right after his company was acquired, for presumably a lot of money. And that’s how he chose to spend his time, instead of going out and buying sports cars.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about the incident that got him arrested in 2011. How did he hack into JSTOR, this archival database, and why?

KEVIN POULSEN: You know, it’s not accurate to say that he hacked into it.

This was a database that was available on MIT’s campus for free to any students there, because MIT paid the subscription cost. So what he did is he went onto the campus and he used their network there, their public network initially, to automatically assess the database, the same way you could do manually legally, and download one article right after another in rapid succession.

That led to a cat-and-mouse where they tried to lock him now, not knowing who he was. And he ultimately went into a networking closet and wired up a laptop in there, and then hid it under a box, and left it running. And that’s how he got caught and subsequently prosecuted.

It wasn’t hacking in the usual sense of the word. He didn’t circumvent any passwords. He didn’t break into any computer systems.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us about — he planned to post those pages on the Internet. Is that right?

KEVIN POULSEN: So it appears, yes. It looked like he planned on posting them anonymously, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: So, tell us about the reaction his death has touched off, starting with his family’s.

KEVIN POULSEN: Well, his family, while acknowledging the chronic depression that he suffered, they also blame the prosecutors who made a federal case out of this incident and pursued him with a lot of vigor.

And they blamed MIT. JSTOR, the database that he had accessed, wound up not supporting the prosecution, but MIT never made a clear statement to that effect themselves. Since then, MIT has come out with a statement, and the president of MIT has ordered an investigation into the full chronology and what MIT’s position had been and at what times.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it’s also … Oh, I’m sorry.

KEVIN POULSEN: Go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s also touched — it added fuel to this long-running debate — and there are a couple sides to it — about how much information stored in private or government or academic databases should be freely available to the public.

KEVIN POULSEN: Yes.

Aaron, he took on a lot of causes and he had a lot of things he was involved in. This was probably his signature issue. He helped develop things like an open card catalogue system that may ultimately chronicle every book in existence, things like that.

So, this was something that he was definitely passionate about. And one of the ways people began honoring his memory yesterday were — academics were posting their papers to the Internet and posting them on Twitter with a special hashtag referencing Aaron. So that’s one of the reactions we have seen already.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Kevin Poulsen of Wired magazine, thank you very much.

KEVIN POULSEN: Thanks for having me.