The family of Internet activist Aaron Swartz claimed on Saturday that an overly harsh justice system contributed to his untimely death. Swartz, 26, was found hanged inside his Brooklyn apartment on Friday.
The Reddit co-founder and RSS co-creator, who by his own admission struggled with depression, was due to stand trial in February over allegations that he stole almost five million scholarly articles from Journal Storage (JSTOR) – via the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) computer network – with the intention of making them available to the public. If found guilty, he may have faced a lengthy prison term.
On Saturday his family and partner released a statement praising Swartz’s “insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance”.
It continued, “We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.”
Strong words, however, were reserved for the US justice system and MIT. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” it said.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” the statement continued. “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.”
It closed with the words, “Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.”
Following the announcement of his death on Friday, tributes have been pouring in for Swartz, who was a strong supporter of freedom of information on the web and co-founder of the digital activist outfit Demand Progress, a group which helped to block the controversial House of Representatives SOPA bill last year.
Digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation described him as “extraordinary” and said he “did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way.”
Long-time friend Cory Doctorow said in a post on Boing Boing that even at 14 years old, Swartz had “a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.”
Swartz’s funeral will take place on January 15 in Highland Park, Illinois, where he grew up.
[Image: Sage Ross]