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Anonymous hacks MIT in honor of Aaron Swartz

Update: Since this story first posted, the U.S. Department of Justice has dropped its case against Aaron Swartz — a common practice when a defendant dies before a court verdict — and declined to comment. 

"We want to respect the family's privacy at this time," DOJ spokesperson Christina DiIorio-Sterling told NBC News. "His death was a tragedy and we don't think it's appropriate to comment on this case at this time."

Meanwhile, a petition has been filed with the White House seeking to remove U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz from office "for overreach" in the Swartz case.


On Sunday, Anonymous added its tribute to the many online memorials honoring Aaron Swartz, hacking into and temporarily taking over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website to eulogize the programmer and Internet activist who reportedly took his life on Friday. The hacktivist collective called for computer crime law reform.  

Swartz, who had written about his battle with depression, helped to create RSS at age 14 and co-founded Demand Progress, a group that helped quash proposed Internet piracy bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. He was also a proponent for open access to information, and in 2011 was indicted on charges that he accessed MIT's computer networks to improperly downloaded 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, an online subscription service which archives academic journals. Though JSTOR balked at charging Swartz, the U.S. Attorney's Office pursued the case. If convicted, Swartz faced up to $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison.

Anonymous addressed the prosecution in its post on the hacked MIT website, stating:

Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing — an ideal that we should all support.

Swartz's family was more direct in its statement, released on Saturday:

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 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.

Hours before Anonymous hacked the MIT website, university president L. Rafael Reif announced an investigation into the school's actions in connection with Swartz. "I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years," Reif wrote, addressing the MIT community. "Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT." 

NBC News has reached out to both MIT and the U.S. Justice Department, and will update this report if we hear back.

It its own homepage tribute to Swartz, JSTOR said 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."

As part of it's memorial posted on the hacked MIT website, Anonymous said it wants "this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them."

Copyright and intellectual property law should be returned "to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few," Anonymous said, and there needs to be a "renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered Internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all."

Following news of Swartz's death, some researchers honored his quest for open access via a PDF tribute. 

"A fitting tribute to Aaron might be a mass protest uploading of copyright-protected research articles," read a Reddit post from Micah Allen, a researcher in the fields of brain plasticity, cognitive neuroscience and cognitive science. "Dump them on Gdocs, tweet the link. Think of the great blu-ray encoding protest but on a bigger scale for research articles." Starting Friday, links to hundreds of PDF documents, with the hashtag #PDFtribute, appeared on Twitter. 

Of the many online tributes to Swartz however, perhaps the most moving is that of his friend and fellow activist, science fiction author Cory Doctorow, posted on

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn't solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

The MIT website has since returned to business as usual, but you can read the entire text that appeared on the hacked website here: In Memoriam, Aaron Swartz, November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013, Requiescat in pace.

Helen A.S. Popkin writes about the Internet. See her on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.