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02/08/2013

Aaron Swartz: Three things from Slate's 14,000-word profile

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on Feb. 4, 2008. (Noah Berger/Reuters)

Slate published a 14,000-word profile Friday on Aaron Swartz, the open-data activist and programmer wunderkind.

Swartz, 26, hanged himself in January while preparing to face trial for downloading millions of academic articles from a scholarly database. His death and the government's case against him enraged those who knew him and many of those who didn't but believed in his principles, sparking a debates about Internet freedom and anti-hacking laws.

The major points of Slate's profile will be familiar to anyone who has followed the Swartz story, but here are a few interesting nuggets:

1. At age 13, Swartz invented something like Wikipedia, before Wikipedia. In May 2000, he  entered a contest that asked teenagers to design non-commercial websites. He described his entry, The Info Network, as "a vast repository of human knowledge" where "anyone is free to add to it or view it and the source code is freely available." Wikipedia launched in September, 2001.

2. Swartz and Reddit did not have a particularly great relationship. That's not new, but some of the details here are revealing. Swartz joined up with the two co-founders of Reddit - the crowdsourced news-sharing site - in the early days, because Reddit and a project of his both had backing from the same company and were both struggling. But the Reddit guys and Swartz quickly grew disillusioned with each other, according to Slate, and Swartz apparently spent months living in their apartment but not working on Reddit. When Conde Nast bought Reddit in 2006 - for somewhere between $10 and $20 million, Slate says - Swartz was cashed out as an equal partner. (He spent much of that fortune fighting the government hacking case against him.)

Lastly...

3. Swartz' case was starting to look winnable. The Department of Justice had accused him of illegally entering an MIT wiring closet to access their network and contravening JSTOR's (the database's) terms of service by downloading in bulk. But experts were to testify that MIT's network was uncommonly open and easy to access, and that JSTOR hadn't set up even basic safeguards against bulk downloading. Also, Swartz' lawyer was optimistic he could win motions to suppress some of the evidence against Swartz. 

According to the Slate profile, Swartz' lawyer had just received new evidence that he believed would help their case when he learned Swartz had committed suicide.

Read more about Aaron Swartz here.

Kate Allen is the Toronto Star’s global science and technology reporter. Follow her on Twitter @katecallen

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