Mike Isaac

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Family of Hacktivist Aaron Swartz Accuses MIT, U.S. Attorney of Contributing to His Suicide

Aaron Swartz in 2008, with former Red Hat CEO Bob Young in the background (CreativeCommons)

Aaron Swartz in 2008, with former Red Hat CEO Bob Young in the background (CreativeCommons)

Update 7:49 PT: Added comment from JSTOR.

The family and friends of Aaron Swartz — the famed Internet hacktivist who took his own life on Friday at the age of 26 — released a public statement on Saturday, placing some of the blame for Swartz’s suicide on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” the statement read. “Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Swartz, long regarded as one of the major proponents of a free and open Internet to further the spread of information, was indicted in July of 2011 on federal charges of illegally accessing documents on JSTOR, the online digital library that hosts academic journal articles, books and primary sources. His alleged crime involved downloading nearly 5 million articles off the service from MIT’s on-campus network.

He faced upwards of 30 years in prison, along with $1 million in fines.

After Swartz turned over his hard drives, JSTOR decided not to pursue any legal action against him.

“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 wrote on Saturday in a statement to the public hosted on its Web site. “At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”

But U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann, backed by Federal government, continued to pursue the prosecution of Swartz, with the tacit support of MIT behind them.

Said Ortiz in 2011: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Earlier on Saturday, acclaimed academic and friend to Swartz, Lawrence Lessig, suggested that Ortiz’s steadfast pursuit of Swartz was outlandish and unnecessary, and part — though not the direct cause — of what brought Swartz to the grim solution he chose.

“From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way,” Lessig wrote on his personal blog. “… [A]nyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.”

Neither the U.S. Attorney’s office in Massachusetts nor MIT immediately responded to emailed requests for comment.


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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle