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MIT, Web community respond to death of ‘Internet hero’ Aaron Swartz

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Sunday that it will launch an investigation into its role in the death of renowned Web activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life in his Brooklyn, New York, apartment on Friday. The announcement followed accusations by Swartz’s family that “officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” Swartz was 26-years-old.

“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” wrote MIT President L. Rafael Reif in a statement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

Swartz faced 13 felony counts for downloading nearly five million academic articles from fee-based service Journal Storage (JSTOR), which he accessed through MIT’s computer system and allegedly planned to distribute online through a file-sharing website. Federal prosecutors threatened Swartz with 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.

The U.S. Attorney’s office dropped its case against Swartz on Monday due to his suicide.

JSTOR settled its civil issues with Swartz after he turned over his hard drives, and asked that the U.S. government not pursue legal action against him. It later made its repository of public-domain articles available to the public free of charge. MIT, which did not itself seek charges against Swartz, issued no such request – an omission many believe implicate the school’s leadership.

“Early on, and to its great credit, JSTOR figured ‘appropriate’ out: They declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its,” wrote Harvard University law professor and Internet activist Lawrence Lessig on his blog. “MIT, to its great shame, 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.”

MIT’s Reif has appointed a professor to oversee an internal investigation into the school’s role in the case against Swartz.

“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,” wrote Reif. “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.”

Once complete, the report will be made available to the “MIT community,” Reif said.

On Saturday, Swartz’s family released a statement, which read in part: “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.”

U.S. District Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, who led the case against Swartz, has declined to comment on his death out of respect for his family.

Swartz was, by all accounts, an incredible talent – one uniquely suited for the Internet era of which he became a “hero.” At age 14, Swartz helped create RSS 1.0, the Web content syndication technology behind RSS feeds and readers. He also helped found Creative Commons, which redefined the relationship between copyright and the Web. Following a brief stint at Stanford University, Swartz founded wiki platform Infogami, which would later merge with social news powerhouse Reddit. He left Reddit after it was purchased by Conde Nast in 2006.

Continuing his quest to make information free, Swartz founded Demand Progress, a non-profit devoted toward the fight against censorship online. The organization would later play a key role in the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which Congress dropped from its agenda after mass opposition from Web users and companies.

In 2007, Swartz wrote a blog post, entitled “Sick,” in which he admitted that he was suffering from a “depressed mood.” While many have speculated that such an affliction caused Swartz to hang himself to death, his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, told the Wall Street Journal on Sunday that Swartz was extremely distraught by the prospect of wasting away in prison and having to ask people for money to help him with his legal defense, but did not appear depressed on the day he killed himself.

The Web, technology, and academic communities have responded to Swartz’s untimely death with an outpouring of sadness, sympathy, and rage. On Hacker News, a link-sharing site owned by startup incubator Y Combinator, which funded Infogami early on, countless members of the coding community have posted articles and comments in an attempt to put Swartz’s suicide in perspective. Members of hacktivist collective Anonymous claimed responsibility for attacks on MIT’s website, and called for an overhaul of computer crime laws. And hundreds of programmers and academics have made their scholarly papers publicly available for free, using the #PDFTribute hashtag on Twitter to spread the word.

A vigil for Swartz was held at MIT on Sunday. His funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15, in his childhood home of Highland Park, Illinois.

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