SOPA Activist and RSS author Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, has been found dead in his Brooklyn, NY apartment, from a hanging suicide. The 26 year-old was facing Federal prosecution for allegedly stealing 4.8 million documents from MIT’s computer networks, as well as from JSTOR, or Journal Storage, a nonprofit organization that offers journals and scholarly books to subsidized institutions. The death came as a shock to Swartz’s parents and girlfriend, who never expected him to hang himself, and they contend that the suicide was as a result of a “criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
Swartz was facing 13 felony charges that ranged from computer fraud to unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. According to a federal indictment, Swartz gained entry to a utility closet on the campus, and left behind a laptop that was signed into the network of the university using a false account. Swartz pleaded not guilty to all 13 of his felony charges, and federal trial was due to start next month, where he stood to face several decades in prison if convicted.
In a statement released by his girlfriend and family, they recalled how Swartz, dubbed an “Internet Folk Hero,” committed his life to making online content free to the public, “Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place.”
Friends of Swartz echoed that sentiment with strongly worded opinions in the wake of the news of Swartz’s suicide. Legal scholar and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig contends that the government’s decision to indict Swartz was a type of bullying. Said Lessing, “Early on, and to its great credit (JSTOR) declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its case. M.I.T., to its great shame,” according to Lessig, “was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the “criminal” who we who loved him knew as Aaron.”
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Fellow hacktivists, the collective known as Anonymous, hacked the MIT website to leave a farewell message to Swartz, saying, “The situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.”
While those close to Aaron accused prosecutors of bullying and intimidating Swartz from the beginning, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, was confident in the decision, saying in 2011, “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
But some legal experts believe that the charges were unfounded due to the fact that Swartz was a university fellow, which means he had the right to access all of those articles. Whether Swartz felt the pressure was too much, despite the legal experts on his side, or whether this had anything to do with the chronic depression about which he’d written on his own blog, is unknown at this time.
President of MIT Leo Rafael Reif, announced that the institution will be conducting an investigation of its involvement with the Swartz case, saying, “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.”
Lief confirmed that the report will be shared publicly once completed. We’re confident that, if it’s not, someone will find a way to get their hands on it.
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