MIT Is Target of Hacker Group Following Suicide of Internet Activist

The home page of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was disabled on Sunday evening by the notorious hacker group Anonymous, hours after the university’s president announced an investigation into MIT’s role in a criminal case against the Internet activist Aaron H. Swartz, who committed suicide on Friday.

The attack was part of an outcry against MIT and prosecutors who were seeking to punish Mr. Swartz for what he considered cyberactivism. The 26-year-old programmer was facing up to 35 years in prison after he allegedly used a laptop hidden in an MIT closet in 2011 to make unauthorized downloads of more than four million scholarly articles from the nonprofit journal archive JSTOR.

He was accused of downloading the materials with the intention of uploading the documents to the Internet and making them freely available, according to a federal indictment. The criminal case had some legal experts and activists puzzled, since Mr. Swartz returned the documents, and a civil case was dropped.

His trial was scheduled for April. He had pleaded not guilty.

On Sunday, Anonymous reportedly hacked MIT Web sites, transforming them into memorials for Mr. Swartz and causing a Web outage that lasted for several hours. Kimberly Allen, a media-relations manager at MIT, confirmed that the incident stemmed from a denial-of-service attack, and that the outage lasted “through much of the evening.”

The statement on the hacked pages described the prosecution of Mr. Swartz as “a grotesque miscarriage of justice” and called for a reform of computer-crime and copyright laws.

In a postcript to their statement, the hackers wrote, “We do not consign blame or responsibility upon MIT for what has happened, but call for all those feel heavy-hearted in their proximity to this awful loss to acknowledge instead the responsibility they have—that we all have—to build and safeguard a future that would make Aaron proud, and honor the ideals and dedication that burnt so brightly within him by embodying them in thought and word and action.”

The call to action seemed to contain less finger-pointing than other statements in the wake of his death.

Some, including Mr. Swartz’s family and lawyer, have blamed MIT and the U.S. attorney’s office for the programmer’s suicide.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” Mr. Swartz’s family said in a written statement. “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 U.S. attorney’s office, the family stated, pursued “an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.” An online petition calling for the resignation of U.S. attorney, Carmen M. Ortiz, has drawn nearly 14,000 signatures since Saturday. Ms. Ortiz’s office filed a motion on Monday seeking dismissal of the case since the defendant had died.

In a letter to the MIT community on Sunday, L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, said the university was saddened by Mr. Swartz’s death.

“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Mr. Reif said, before calling upon “everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.”

Mr. Reif appointed Hal Abelson, an MIT professor, to lead an investigation into what options MIT had following the alleged crime and the decisions the university made.

JSTOR also released a statement that called Mr. Swartz’s death a tragedy and said “the case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge.”

JSTOR had settled any civil claims it had against Mr. Swartz, as he had returned all the data he had downloaded from its servers, said Heidi McGregor, a spokeswoman for JSTOR. Ms. McGregor said that the organization’s interest was in ensuring the materials were returned, and that JSTOR had no influence over how the U.S. attorney’s office handled the case.

“We don’t own the data, the publishers own it,” Ms. McGregor said. “So our objective was to just get it back.”

Mr. Swartz rose to prominence when, at age 14, he helped write an early version of the Web-syndication format called RSS. He also co-founded the popular Web site Reddit and later started a nonprofit advocacy group called Demand Progress. In 2008 he wrote a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” about how corporations were digitizing academic books and journals and then charging money for access to them.

“Information is power,” Mr. Swartz wrote. “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”

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