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At A Young Age, Aaron Swartz Did A Lifetime Of Work


There was sadness and shock among many in the tech community yesterday, after news spread of the suicide of a computer prodigy. Twenty-six-year-old Aaron Swartz became a tech celebrity at the age of 14. Friends and family say he battled depression, and was recently anxious because he was about to go on trial in federal court. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: If you use Google Reader or MyYahoo, you should thank Aaron Swartz. When he was 14 years old, he helped develop the protocol they use, called RSS. Real Simple Syndication lets people create personal news feeds from blogs and news sites. By the time he was 20, he helped build the foundation of Reddit, a popular site that lets its users share news and entertainment. And he was always active in any cause to help make information more available on the Internet. Among his friends is a star of the fight for an open Internet, Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig.

LAWRENCE LESSIG: He did more than most all of us do in our whole life. Every single year of his 26 short years - since he was a quasi-adult - has been focused on trying to do good.

SYDELL: Lessig praises Swartz as the original architect of a more open form of copyright protection, called a creative commons license. Swartz also instigated the most successful grass-roots, online campaign ever seen. Congress was about to pass legislation that would have blocked access to websites with illegal films and music. It was called the Stop Online Piracy Act or SOPA. Here's Swartz at a conference, after SOPA was blocked.


AARON SWARTZ: The people rose up, and they caused a sea change in Washington. Not the press, which refused to cover the story; not the politicians, who are pretty much unanimously in favor of it; and not the companies, who had all but given up trying to stop it and decided it was inevitable. It was really stopped by the people.

SYDELL: Swartz's advocacy would get him in trouble with the law. He hacked into MIT's computer networks, and copied scholarly articles kept behind a pay wall. He wanted to make them publicly available. Swartz faced 13 felony counts, and decades in prison. The company he broke into, JSTOR, didn't want to prosecute. Today, the company website expressed heartfelt condolences to Swartz's family and friends.

Harvard professor Lessig thinks the prosecutors were being overzealous.

LESSIG: Even if what he did was wrong, it was wildly disproportionate. And the reality of defending yourself in a federal trial is that it's extraordinarily expensive.

SYDELL: Lessig says he, and many of Swartz's friends, fear he felt backed against a wall. A statement from Swartz's family also linked his death to what they called prosecutorial overreach. Swartz did have a history of depression. Members of his family say he hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment, and was found by a friend. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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