Bloomberg News

Web Activist’s Family Blames MIT, Prosecutors in Death

January 13, 2013

Computer Programmer Aaron Swartz

Swartz, 26, was accused in 2011 of gaining unauthorized access to MIT’s network to put free copies online of subscription-only journal articles. Source: ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside via AP Photo

The family of Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer, entrepreneur and activist who died last week, blamed his suicide on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the U.S. prosecutors who accused him of crimes including wire and computer fraud.

Swartz, 26, died from suicide by hanging, according to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office.

As a teenager, Swartz helped create a technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which lets Web users gain access to online information. He was indicted in July 2011 for allegedly gaining access to and downloading more than 4 million articles and documents from a subscription-only service.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family wrote in a statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Swartz was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading most of the library.

“The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims,” Swartz’s family wrote. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

‘Tragic Loss’

Representatives from the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts declined to comment, citing respect for the family’s privacy.

Leo Rafael Reif, president of MIT, expressed his condolences in a letter e-mailed to the university community and said that he asked professor Hal Abelson to make a “thorough analysis” of the institute’s involvement with Swartz’s use of its computer network.

“Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism,” Reif wrote.

JSTOR, in a statement, said it had settled its own claims against Swartz in June 2011 and that he had returned the data.

“We join those who are mourning this tragic loss,” JSTOR said in the statement, calling Swartz a “truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the web from which we all benefit.”

JSTOR said that while it regretted being brought into the federal case, it had a responsibility to protect the owners and creators of its content.

Widely Mourned

He was mourned widely by academics, executives and fellow activists. The Internet was inundated with tributes to Swartz.

“His stunts were breathtaking,” wrote Canadian author Cory Doctorow, who knew Swartz.

Swartz struggled with depression and wrote about it publicly, Doctorow wrote. He may also have taken his life because he feared imprisonment, according to Doctorow.

“Swartz was a strong and effective advocate of the untrammeled flow of information and knowledge in all directions, and vigilance against control or de-facto censorship efforts by corporate or governmental interests,” author James Fallows wrote in a statement published by Swartz’s family.

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and Internet activist wrote in a blog post that the criminal case against Swartz was misguided. Swartz “consulted me as a friend and lawyer” in the MIT case, and he didn’t seek to profit from downloading academic papers, Lessig wrote.

‘Blown Away’

“From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way,” Lessig said. “The outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior.”

Other academics took to the micro-blogging service Twitter to honor Swartz by posting free versions of their publications online, using the identifying hashtag #pdftribute.

Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer at Yahoo! Inc., said on Twitter that she’d met Swartz 11 years ago when she was an executive at Google Inc. “We had found his blog and were blown away by his age (16) and insights,” she said.

Swartz was charged in 2011 with multiple counts of wire fraud and violations of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Upon conviction, wire fraud carries a maximum penalty of 30 years and a top fine of $1 million. Swartz’s alleged violations of the computer law carried a maximum penalty of 5 to 10 years, depending on the conduct, and may have also warranted a fine. Actual sentences typically run less than the maximums, and judges often set sentences to run concurrently rather than consecutively.

Suicide Rates

He co-founded the news and information site Reddit, as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy bills, according to his website. He also contributed to Internet projects including Watchdog.net, Open Library, and Jottit, and helped launch Creative Commons -- an online publishing and copyright project that Lessig was also involved with -- according to his biography on the Demand Progress website.

The vast majority of people who commit suicide have depression, or another type of mental health disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It was the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2007, accounting for 34,598 fatalities. Almost four times as many men as women die of suicide.

A funeral will be held Jan 15. at a synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, near Chicago, according to the Swartz family statement. He is survived by his parents, Robert and Susan Swartz, younger brothers Noah and Ben, and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, the statement said. Memorial services may happen in other cities in the coming weeks.

Elliot Peters of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest, reported by The Tech to be Swartz’s attorney, didn’t respond to a voicemail and e-mail sent by Bloomberg News seeking comment.

The case against Swartz was U.S. v. Swartz, 11 CR 10260, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston)

To contact the reporters on this story: Aaron Ricadela in San Francisco at aricadela@bloomberg.net; Dan Hart in Washington at dahart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tom Giles at tgiles5@bloomberg.net


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