Tragedy shook the online community yesterday, following the news that Hacker-Activist Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, Creative Commons and Demand Progress, committed suicide in New York City on Friday night.
Swartz’s family released an official statement on Saturday afternoon, placing blame for Aaron’s death on MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office. They wrote:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. 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. 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.
In the fall of 2010, Swartz logged on to MIT’s network and allegedly scraped four million papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. When administrators found out, they booted his laptop off the Wi-Fi network, leading Swartz to enter an MIT network closet and plug his laptop directly into the campus network.
Swartz was later arrested and charged with 13 counts of felony, including computer hacking and wire fraud. When he appeared in court this past September, he was facing a potential sentence of more than 50 years in prison, as well as a $1 million fine if convicted.
Swartz’s financial struggles soon became incredibly apparent. Social justice lawyer Bettina Neuefeind, the wife of Creative Commons Founder Larry Lessig, established free.aaronsw.com to help raise money for Swartz’s defense.
Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, has echoed the criticisms made by Swartz’s family. He called the government prosecutor in the case a “bully” yesterday, claiming on his blog that Swartz had been “driven to the edge” by the government’s handling of the case. He wrote:
But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
At noon today, January 13, a rally is expected to be held at MIT to protest the wrongful prosecution of Swartz. As one Hacker News commenter said:
To say that this is a catastrophe at many levels is an understatement. This should not have happened. … These things are not worth a person’s life.
Swartz’s funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15, at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois. Remembrances of Swartz, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com.