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This is from The Age newspaper website in Australia.|
Feb 1. 2014, by
Paul McGeoughChief foreign correspondent
Computer genius and online activist Aaron Swartz wanted to change the world - one download at a time. Then the US government decided enough was enough, with tragic consequences. By Paul McGeough.
His mind raced as the taxi hurtled towards Brooklyn. Sam McLean had dropped in for drinks with mates at an office in SoHo, in Lower Manhattan and now, as the cab crossed the East River, he was assailed by a rising sense of unease.
The day had started badly. He'd been supposed to meet his friend Aaron Swartz for brunch, but his calls and texts had gone unanswered. Miffed, McLean had arranged with Swartz's Australian-American girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, for the gang to gather for dinner.
He did not commit suicide, he was killed by the government.
As national director of the Australian activist movement GetUp!, McLean, then 25, was on a Manhattan stopover after attending a retreat for online activists from around the world in Holmes, 80 kilometres north of New York City. There, the Online Progressive Engagement Networks (OPEN) had taken over a conference centre to "collectively dream and scheme about the future".
At about 7pm, McLean's mobile rang - a frantic call from Ben Margetts, another member of the Australian activist network in New York, insisting he get to the apartment Swartz shared with Stinebrickner-Kauffman urgently. Soon came another call, this time from an agitated Stinebrickner-Kauffman demanding to know how long he'd be.
Less than 10 minutes later, McLean piled out of the taxi into a rainy evening. Barrelling into the newish apartment block, he took the elevator to the seventh floor. The door was open and a stricken Stinebrickner-Kauffman, 32, and Margetts, 27, were standing outside. Swartz was inside, dead, they told him. When she got home that afternoon, his girlfriend had found him hanging by his belt from a window jamb. It was January 11, 2013.
Variously described as a genius, wunderkind and prodigy, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz had become a rock star in a burgeoning, global internet-based activist movement. From his early teens, he had bent an agile mind and a rare wizardry with computers to a self-appointed mission that he often, and perfectly seriously, described as saving the world.
Stinebrickner-Kauffman, his girlfriend since 2011, had been so worried about what Swartz might do to himself that morning that she'd tried to prevent him going to the bathroom alone. Unable to reach him through the day, she was so filled with a sense of foreboding on her return to the apartment that as she rode up in the elevator, as she later told The New Yorker, she readied her mobile to be able to dial 911 immediately.
On entering, she found Swartz hanging from the window. He was still in the clothes he'd been wearing when she'd left that morning: black V-neck T-shirt, brown corduroy trousers and jacket. There was no suicide note.
Police and paramedics brought Swartz down from the window jamb and by the time McLean entered, the body had been zipped into a black bag. McLean grabbed a few things for the deeply shocked Stinebrickner-Kauffman and, with Margetts, they headed to the nearby home of another activist friend, American Ben Wikler.
Aaron Swartz committed suicide
just two days after federal prosecutors in Boston had rejected his last bid to avoid jail time. Two years earlier, he'd been busted using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network to download almost 5 million documents ordinarily locked behind a pay-wall on one of the world's most preeminent scholarly archives, JSTOR - a conflation of "journal storage".
When the prosecutors hit Swartz with a raft of charges, under which he might have been jailed for decades, the plea-bargaining process became a stalemate. Swartz rejected any outcome that would brand him for life as a felon when he believed he'd committed no crime; prosecutors insisting, on the other hand, that he was guilty and must do time.
Simon Sheikh, the Canberra-based activist entrepreneur and a failed Greens candidate at the 2013 federal election, was also at the OPEN summit in upstate New York early last year. As McLean's predecessor at GetUp!, Sheikh had first reached out to Swartz the previous year. Swartz was then working for Avaaz, a relatively new, online, global activist movement drawing followers by the millions, and Sheikh had been keen to tap into its campaign inventiveness.
Later, he'd introduced Swartz to the leadership at ThoughtWorks, a privately owned company with a staff of thousands working across the globe to revolutionise software design for positive social change. In April 2012, the organisation snapped up Swartz as a software developer.
Both Sheikh and McLean spent time with Swartz in New York that went way beyond the pro-forma office appointments and conference interactions they might have expected. What was to be a one-hour meeting at the ThoughtWorks office on Madison Avenue, says Sheikh, became a talkfest on machine learning environments that went into the early hours of the next day and reconvened a day later at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
At Holmes, Swartz dragged McLean up to an attic room, where they huddled for hours as he shared his latest dramatic thinking. McLean remembers being struck by what he considered an oddly phrased afterthought. "He told me he had cracked his idea on how to change the world," McLean remembers. "And [he said] he would do it that year - or he would die."
Later, Swartz's collaborator at the Edmond J. Safra Centre for Ethics at Harvard, law professor Lawrence Lessig, described his complex young friend in these terms: "Aaron was a hacker. But he was not just a hacker. He was an internet activist, but not just an internet activist. Indeed, the most important part of Aaron's life is the part that most run over too quickly - the last chunk, when he shifted his focus from this effort to advance freedom in the space of copyright, to an effort to advance freedom and social justice more generally."
Recently, when I track Sam McLean, now 27, to a beach house on the south coast of NSW, he tells me in a Skype video exchange: "We all can see the world one way and think that it should be another way, but most don't feel they have the agency and a responsibility to [change it]. Aaron believed he had both."
Simon Sheikh noticed a healthy tension when Swartz was in a room. "Even without speaking, he could communicate his disappointment with ideas that were not well formed and with people whose values did not match his own," he says. "His values were simple, clear, pure - and he wouldn't budge."
On the night Swartz died, McLean and the others set up a memorial website. Within days, there were tens of thousands of tributes from around the world. "Aaron Swartz is what I wish I was," wrote an introspective John Atkinson. "I am a bright technologist, but I've never built anything of note. I have strong opinions about how to improve this world, but I've never acted to bring them to pass ... If I were able to stop being afraid of what the world would think of me, I could see myself making every decision that Aaron made that ultimately led to his untimely death. This upsets me immensely."