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Family of Aaron Swartz: Government officials partly to blame for his death

Aaron Swartz, a noted Internet freedom ''hakctivist,'' died Friday at his apartment. He was 26. He was due to begin a federal trial next month on charges he downloaded millions of academic papers and meant to distribute them for free.
Aaron Swartz, a noted Internet freedom ''hakctivist,'' died Friday at his apartment. He was 26. He was due to begin a federal trial next month on charges he downloaded millions of academic papers and meant to distribute them for free.Michael Francis Mcelroy / Zuma Press

In the 24 hours since Aaron Swartz, a prodigy programmer turned Internet folk hero, hanged himself in his New York apartment, his family and a close friend and mentor have not only expressed devastation – they have been angry.

“Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family wrote in a statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Swartz, who helped to create RSS at age 14, was indicted in 2011 on charges alleging he improperly downloaded more than four million articles from JSTOR, an online system for archiving academic journals. Swartz argued for transparency -- JSTOR costs more than $50,000 for an annual university subscription -- but court records show that the federal government believed he had, among other felonies, committed wire fraud and computer fraud and unlawfully obtained information from a protected computer.

JSTOR ultimately backed Swartz. But his family’s statement was unflinchingly critical of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Cambridge, Mass., university where Swartz had allegedly registered a ghost computer to download the records:

Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles.

JSTOR paid tribute to Swartz in a statement on its front page, saying it regretted being drawn into the case because the organization's "mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge."

"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," the statement said. "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."  

Swartz’s family described him as entirely committed to social justice. He helped to defeat an Internet censorship bill and “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.”

Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Friday, his family confirmed. 

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who described himself as a mentor and close friend to Swartz, took to Tumblr to express his own raw emotions. He wrote that Swartz's actions may not have been ethical, but the government's response was overly aggressive:

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. 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. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office told Reuters that officials wanted to respect the family's privacy and did "not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time." Reuters and The Associated Press reported that they could not reach MIT for comment.

Lessig described Swartz as brilliant, funny, “a soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?”

He concluded his piece: “We need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.”

Related: NYT: Aaron Swartz, precocious programmer and Internet activist, dies at 26