Computer Activist Accused of Rogue Downloading Commits Suicide

Aaron H. Swartz, who was charged in 2011 with making unauthorized downloads of more than four million journal articles, died at the age of 26. Mr. Swartz, who drew attention as a 14-year-old when he helped write an early version of RSS, a popular Web-syndication format, became a cause célèbre among open-access advocates and others after his arrest. Federal prosecutors filed additional felony charges against Mr. Swartz last September, and he subsequently pleaded not guilty. More coverage can be found at Boing Boing, Digital Journal, Mashable, The New York Times, and ZDNet.

Update (1/12/2013, 8:33 p.m.): In a statement released on Saturday evening, his family celebrated Mr. Swartz for his “insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance,” and for his commitment to social justice, noting also that he had played a key role in the defeat of Internet-censorship legislation. “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,” the statement said.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” the statement concluded. “It is the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” with the decision to file “an exceptionally harsh array of charges” against him, “to punish an alleged crime that had no victims,” having “contributed to his death.”

Update (1/13/2013, 6:11 p.m.): The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, L. Rafael Reif, expressed condolences in a written statement on Sunday, saying that he “and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many.”

Mr. Swartz allegedly used a laptop concealed in a closet at MIT to illegally obtain the journal articles, from JSTOR. Mr. Reis’s statement noted that while Mr. Swartz had no formal affiliation with MIT, “he was beloved by many members of our community” and that MIT had played a role in the legal proceedings against him. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Mr. Reif wrote, adding that the university would undertake an analysis of its actions:

“I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. 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. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.”

“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” confirmed Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech.

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