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Hacktivist's suicide intensifies criticism of U.S. attorney, MIT

January 13, 2013|By Matt Pearce
  • Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself Friday. His suicide has stoked a politically malignant aftermath for the prosecutors pursuing 13 felony charges against him in a trial that was set to begin in a month.
Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself Friday. His suicide has… (Michael Francis McElroy )

Aaron Swartz's legacy was already guaranteed, even at 26: He helped create Reddit and RSS, which distributes content over the Internet.

But his suicide by hanging Friday has also stoked a politically malignant aftermath for the prosecutors pursuing 13 felony charges against him in a trial that was set to begin in a month. Some said his death could be a watershed moment in the ongoing intellectual property debate over the things people share and create, and how they share and create them. 

Swartz, an open-Internet advocate who had struggled with depression, was facing decades of prison time and charges that included wire fraud for downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit academic database with a paywall. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors, led by Massachusetts U.S. Atty. Carmen Ortiz, moved the case forward.

Swartz's death also came days after JSTOR announced that it was releasing 4.5 million articles to the public, free for use.

Some academics said Sunday they planned to post other copyrighted articles online -- one of the many digital memorials circulating online as Webgoers mourned and assessed the life of a popular and influential activist.

"There’s no doubt in my mind that depression was a factor," wrote Microsoft researcher and NYU professor Danah Boyd in a Sunday blog post. "I adored Aaron because he was an emotional whirlwind – a cranky bastard and a manic savant.... He had an intellectual range that awed me and a kitten’s sense of curiosity. But when he was feeling destructive, he used his astute understandings of people to find their weak spots and poke them where it hurt."

But criticism, including Boyd's, focused much more intensely on the government for its hard pursuit of Swartz. In a Saturday statement, Swartz's family and girlfriend partially blamed his suicide as "the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," a charge widely echoed among supporters.

"We want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time," Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said in an email to the Los Angeles Times on Sunday when asked for reaction to the family's comments.

Copyright expert and Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, in a Saturday blog post titled "Prosecutor as Bully," asked readers, "Please don't pathologize this story."

"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. "The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen,' we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars' — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar."

Lessig added, "Somehow, we need to get beyond the 'I’m right so I’m right to nuke you' ethics that dominates our time."

In a news release announcing Swartz's indictment in July 2011, U.S. Atty. Ortiz had previously said, "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

The indictment said Swartz broke into a wiring closet at MIT, where he was not enrolled or on staff, to hack its network for the JSTOR articles, which officials said he then planned to give away on file-sharing networks. MIT did not object to the prosecution.

On Sunday afternoon, MIT President L. Rafael Reif emailed university members a statement about Swartz's "shocking" death.

"It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy," Reif wrote in the statement, obtained by the Los Angeles Times. He added that he had asked Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at the school, to conduct a review.

"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," Reif said. "I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."

A search of Swartz's prolific blog and Twitter account did not turn up any relevant references to JSTOR. In one September 2009 post titled "Honest Theft", Swartz defended students sleeping on MIT grounds to save money, writing in a typically egalitarian vein: "MIT receives enormous sums from the wealthy and powerful, more than they know how to spend. Much of it gets spent on unneeded luxuries for their already-elite students. Redistributing it to the town’s poorer residents seems potentially justified." Elsewhere, Swartz had criticized academics as out of touch.

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