Family members, friends and internet activists sadly remembered Aaron Swartz, with some saying the government overreached by charing him criminally for allegedly hacking into MIT’s network and mass downloading millions of documents from a subscription archive.
Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment Friday, according to a family statement and the New York Medical Examiner’s Office. Noting that he had co-founded Reddit, the Los Angeles Times called Swartz "an Internet folk hero for fighting to make online content free to the public.''
In his blog, Larry Lessig blamed an overreaching prosecution for Swartz's death.
"He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius,'' Lessig wrote. "A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.''
Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
In their statement, Swartz’s family slammed his prosecution. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” reads the statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.
“The US 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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation called him ''an extraordinary hacker and activist.''
"If we believe the prosecutor's allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before,'' said a statement on the foundation's blog. "While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.''
Internet pioneer Doc Searls, co-author of the Cluetrain Manefesto, wrote that he met Swartz at age 14, when Swartz was already a figure in the industry. "I always felt a kinship with Aaron, in part because we were living demographic bookends. At many of the events we both attended, at least early on, he was the youngest person there, and I was the oldest,'' Searls wrote. "We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.''
“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues,” wrote Cory Doctorow, science fiction author, activist, and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing, who said he had known Swartz since Swartz was 14 or 15. “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”
At age 14, Swartz helped develop RSS, the system that quickly distributes updated Web pages to other websites or people. He was the founder of nonprofit political action group Demand Progress.
“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,” read a tweet from the account of Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web.
According to the Globe, in July 2011, Swartz was charged in US District Court in Boston with hacking into the archive system JSTOR on MIT’s network in 2010 and downloading more than 4 million articles, some of which were only available for purchase. Authorities said Swartz planned to distribute the information free on file-sharing websites. At the time, he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.
Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. According to court documents, Swartz pleaded not guilty to the charges on Sept. 24, 2012. A spokeswoman for the United States Department of Justice declined to comment on what will happen with the case pending against Swartz.
U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston couldn’t be reached for comment. She previously has said that ‘‘stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,’’ The New York Times reported Saturday.