Net crusader 'bullied' into death

By David Usborne

Aaron Swartz was due to stand trial on 13 charges of data theft. Photo / AP
Aaron Swartz was due to stand trial on 13 charges of data theft. Photo / AP

As family and friends gather tomorrow for the funeral of Aaron Swartz, the free internet crusader who was facing prosecution for alleged data theft when he took his own life last week, an internal investigation was ordered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into what role it may have had in the tragedy.

Swartz, who was a hero to activists committed to ensuring maximum and free access to knowledge and content on the internet, was found in his Brooklyn apartment on Saturday.

Scholars of information technology already knew Mr Swartz as a person of nearly exotic brilliance who helped invent the RSS system for distributing content when he was barely a teenager and co-founded the social sharing site Reddit.

Swartz, who was just 26, had a history of depression. However, as colleagues and associates filled the ether with tributes to his achievements, attention turned to his 2011 arrest for allegedly stealing thousands of scientific articles from a closed archive at MIT called JSTOR, with alleged intent to distribute them for free on content-sharing websites.

He was due to stand trial on 13 charges of data theft this year. He was facing fines and up to 30 years in prison had he been convicted.

Critics have accused prosecutors in Boston of harrying Swartz and losing any sense of proportion as they pursued the case. Since the weekend, more than 1500 copyright-protected articles have been made accessible for free on the internet by authors and owners as a tribute to Swartz under the common name, #pdftribute.

"He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius," Larry Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Centre for Ethics at Harvard University, wrote in his blog. Swartz was a fellow at Harvard and attached to the Safra Centre when he allegedly hacked into JSTOR on the MIT campus. A petition signed by 12,000 people has been sent to the White House demanding the sacking of the prosecutor who was in charge of the Swartz case, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

"A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?" Professor Lessig went on. "That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you."

MIT has also begun some soul-searching amid suggestions that while JSTOR sought to play down the seriousness of Swartz's intrusion into their system - he is accused of breaking into a computer cupboard at MIT and wiring up his laptop to purloin the JSTOR files - and asked prosecutors to drop the case, the authorities at MIT sided with prosecutors. Those who run JSTOR "declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop it," Lessig wrote. "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 loved and knew as Aaron."

The MIT investigation into these and other claims has been ordered by the university's president, Rafael Reif. He appointed Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, to lead the probe.

"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," Reif said. "It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy."

A funeral for Swartz is set for tomorrow in a synagogue in Highland Park, north of Chicago.

Among those offering tributes to him is Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web.

"Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep," he said via a post on Twitter.

In a statement the family of Swartz and his girlfriend said his death was a "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach". The statement specifically blamed decisions by the Massachusetts prosecutors' office and MIT.

Activists who considered Swartz their pied piper took early revenge on MIT by hacking into the university's website and crashing it for periods over the weekend.

- Independent

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