TO CALL Aaron Swartz gifted would be to miss the point. As far as the internet was concerned, he was the gift. In 2001, aged just 14, he helped develop a new version of RSS feeds, which enable blog posts, articles and videos to be distributed easily across the web. A year later he was working with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, and others on enhancing the internet through the Semantic Web, in which web-page contents would be structured so that the underlying data could be shared and reused across different online applications and endeavours. At the same time he was part of a team, composed of programmers like himself (albeit none quite as youthful), lawyers and policy wonks, that launched Creative Commons, a project that simplified information-sharing through free, easy-to-use copyright licences.
Most of this he did for little or no compensation. One exception was Reddit, though he later sounded almost contrite about the riches showered on him and his colleagues by Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue and over a dozen other prominent lifestyle magazines, which bought the popular social news site in 2006. In any case, he wasn't a good fit for corporate life, he said, and left a few months later—or, depending on whom you talk to, was asked to leave. But the cash did let him focus on his relentless struggle to liberate data for online masses to enjoy for free.
For although programming was his first love, campaigning was his true vocation. He co-founded Demand Progress, a group that rails against internet censorship and which played a prominent role in the online campaign last year that helped to scupper proposed anti-piracy legislation supported by Hollywood film studios and other content owners. His Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto of 2008 presaged—and perhaps inspired—recent threats by academics to shun journals that charge readers for access.
Around 2006 he obtained—though he would not say how—the complete bibliographic data for books held by the Library of Congress. He thought it unfair that the Library's catalogue division charged hefty fees to provide this information, which, being the work of the government, had no copyright protection within the United States. So he posted it in the Open Library, which aims to provide an entry for every book in existence as part of Internet Archive, a project founded by the internet entrepreneur Brewster Kahle to store a copy of every web page of every website ever to go online.
Aghast at how federal court documents were available only for a price from the inappositely named Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system, in 2009 he used the free access temporarily granted to public libraries to retrieve 18m pages of PACER's 500m documents before he was cut off. They ended up on public.resource.org, founded by Carl Malamud, a veteran advocate of open access, also known as the internet's public librarian. The FBI investigated but did not pursue charges.
The authorities weren't always so lenient. In 2011 he was arrested for allegedly retrieving 4.8m documents from JSTOR, a fee-based repository of articles from scholarly journals. Prosecutors claimed that Mr Swartz, a fellow at Harvard at the time, installed a laptop in a wiring closet at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology and used a pseudonym to gain access, which is free to staff and students at subscribing institutions. If convicted, he would have faced up to 35 years in prison and a $1m fine.
JSTOR settled its civil issues with him, and considered the matter closed. Indeed, soon after the prosecutors pounced with criminal charges, it opened up all public-domain articles in its trove. And, two days before Mr Swartz's premature death on January 11th, apparently by suicide in his New York apartment, it expanded a test programme to enable limited reading of about 4.5m articles to those who register for a free account.
The prospect of prison may or may not have been what pushed the 26-year-old, long struggling with bouts of depression, over the edge. Opinions varied as to whether prosecutors could secure a conviction. They certainly believed they had enough to put him away. Lawrence Lessig, a well-known web theorist and academic, as well as Mr Swartz's friend and mentor, thought that the evidence was enough to demonstrate that his protégé's act was wrong, morally if not legally, but deserved only minor punishment. Alex Stamos, who was to testify as an expert witness for the defence, described it as "inconsiderate", not criminal.
On hearing of his death Babbage (G.F.) reviewed a number of e-mails he exchanged with Mr Swartz in 2000-01. The boy was in his mid-teens but his prose, taut and to the point, was as mature as his precocious mind. He wanted to know where your correspondent obtained book data for a price-comparison site. He even suggested a collaboration, regretfully unconsummated, that later became the nucleus of the Open Library.
With typical foresight, a decade ago Mr Swartz put up a web page that appoints a virtual executor and instructs him to make the contents of his hard drives public, one last gift to the online commons. But meagre compensation for the loss of that most uncommon of online commoners. As Sir Tim put it, in fewer than 140 characters, "Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep." And the web wept.