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Internet activist Aaron Swartz dead at 26

Just weeks before he was to be tried for felony fraud charges, Swartz commits suicide in his New York home.
Last Modified: 13 Jan 2013 10:58
Swartz was known for his activism that sought to make information available to the public [AP]

Internet activist Aaron Swartz who had been arrested and faced federal criminal charges over allegations of fraud case has committed suicide at his New York City home at age 26, authorities have said. .

Swartz hanged himself on Friday weeks before he was set to start trial on accusations that he stole millions of journal articles from an electronic archive in an attempt to make them freely available.

Swartz is widely credited with being a co-author of the specifications for the Web feed format RSS 1.0, which he worked on at age 14, according to a blog post on Saturday from his friend, science fiction author Cory Doctorow.

Over the years, he became an online icon for helping to make information freely available to the public, including an estimated 19 million pages of federal court documents from the PACER case-law system.

In 2008, The New York Times reported, Swartz wrote a program to legally download the files using free access via public libraries. About 20 percent of all the court papers were made available until the government shut down the library access.

"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves," Swartz wrote in 2008.

The FBI investigated but did not charge Swartz, he wrote on his own website.

Three years later, Swartz was arrested in Boston and charged with stealing millions of articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prosecutors said he broke into a computer wiring closet on campus and used his laptop for the downloads.

'No sense'

Experts puzzled over the arrest and argued that the result of the actions Swartz was accused of was the same as his PACER program: more information publicly available.

The prosecution “makes no sense,'' Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal said in a statement at the time. “It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.''

He faced 13 felony charges, including breaching site terms and intending to share downloaded files through peer-to-peer networks, computer fraud, wire fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture.

JSTOR did not press charges once it reclaimed the articles from Swartz, and some legal experts considered the case unfounded, saying that MIT allows guests access to the articles and Swartz, a fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics, was a guest.

In a blog post for the Guardian, columnist and former constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald wrote, “[Swartz]had every right to download the articles as an authorised JSTOR user; at worst, he intended to violate the company's ‘terms of service’ by making the articles available to the public."

Criticising the government's actions in the pending prosecution, Harvard law professor and Safra Center faculty director Lawrence Lessig called himself a friend of Swartz's and wrote Saturday that “we need a better sense of justice. ... The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labelled a 'felon.'''

“Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy,'' a statement from Swartz’s family said on Saturday.

“It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death.''

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