Swartz was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Susan and Robert Swartz. Swartz's family lived in Highland Park, Illinois. His father founded a software company, and from a young age Swartz was interested in computing, ardently studying computers, the Internet and Internet culture. When he was 13, Swartz was a winner of the ArsDigita Prize, a competition for young people who created "useful, educational, and collaborative" non-commercial Web sites. The prize included a trip to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and meetings with Internet notables. At the age of 14 Swartz was collaborating with experts in networking standards as a member of the working group that authored the RSS 1.0 Specification. Writing in Yahoo! News, Virginia Heffernan said about Swartz, "he agitated without cease—or compensation—for the free-culture movement."
Aaron protesting against SOPA
He later attended Stanford University, but left after just one year. Instead he founded the software company Infogami, a startup that was funded by Y Combinator's first Summer Founders Program.
Through the Y Combinator program, Swartz started the wiki platform Infogami (later used to support the web.py and Open Library sites), but felt he needed co-founders to proceed. Y-Combinator organizers suggested that Infogami merge with Reddit which it did in November 2005. While Reddit initially found it difficult to make money from the project, the site later gained in popularity, with millions of users visiting it each month. In late 2006, after months of negotiations, Reddit was sold to CondéNet, owners of Wired magazineSwartz moved with his company to San Francisco to work on Wired, but grew unhappy with the set-up and in January, 2007, he was asked to resign from his position Swartz described himself as being ill and suffering from a constant depressed mood throughout 2007.] In September, 2007, Swartz joined with Simon Carstensen and launched Jottit. In 2010–2011 he was a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics
Swartz was also the creator of the web.py Web application framework, and co-founded Demand Progress, a progressive advocacy group that organizes people via email and other media for "contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word" about targeted issues.
Swartz was significantly involved with a campaign to prevent the passing of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill that sought to monitor the Internet for copyright violations. Following the defeat of the bill, Swartz was the keynote speaker at the F2C:Freedom to Connect 2012 event in Washington DC, US on May 21, 2012—Swartz's speech was entitled "How we stopped SOPA" and he informed the audience:
It was really stopped by the people; the people themselves—they killed the bill dead. So dead, that when members of Congress propose something now that even touches the Internet, they have to give a long speech beforehand about how it is definitely not like SOPA. So dead, that when you ask Congressional staffers about it, they groan and shake their heads, like it's all a bad dream they're trying really hard to forget. So dead, that it's kind of hard to believe this story; hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing. Hard to remember how this could have gone any other way. But it wasn't a dream or a nightmare—it was all very real. And it will happen again; sure, it will have another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politician's eyes has not been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who wanna clamp down on the Internet. And to be honest, there aren't a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that ... We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom the senators were right—the Internet really is out of control.
In 2009, he downloaded and publicly released approximately 20% of the PACER database of United States federal court documents managed by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. He had accessed the system as part of a free trial of PACER at 17 libraries around the country, which was suspended "pending an evaluation" as a result of Swartz's actions. Those actions brought him under investigation by the FBI, but the case was closed two months later with no charges being filed.
On July 19, 2011, Swartz was charged by U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer, in relation to downloading roughly 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR. According to the indictment against him, Swartz surreptitiously attached a laptop to MIT's computer network, which allowed him to "rapidly download an extraordinary volume of articles from JSTOR." Prosecutors in the case claim Swartz acted with the intention of making the papers available on P2P file-sharing sites.
Swartz surrendered to authorities, pleading not guilty on all accounts, and was released on US$100,000 unsecured bail. Prosecution of the case continued, with charges of wire fraud and computer fraud, carrying a potential prison term of up to 35 years and a fine of up to $1 million. After Swartz's arrest, JSTOR put out a statement saying it would not pursue civil litigation against him.