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Anger at suicide of US internet activist

Family accuses US Attorney's office and MIT of contributing to the death of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz.
Last Modified: 14 Jan 2013 09:11
Internet activist and programmer Swartz helped create an early version of RSS [Reuters]

Angry activists poured scorn on US prosecutors for leading an overzealous campaign against internet freedom fighter Aaron Swartz, with his family suggesting it contributed to his suicide.

Swartz, who was just 14 when he co-developed the RSS feeds that are now the norm for publishing frequent updates online and went on to help launch social news website Reddit, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Friday.

He had been due to stand trial in April for allegedly breaking into a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to plug into the computer network and download millions of academic journal articles from the subscription-only JSTOR service.

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy... Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death"

- Swartz family statement

Swartz had written openly about suffering periodically from depression, but friends and family suggested the looming trial contributed to his suicide and accused MIT and prosecutors of being overzealous in pursuing their case.

"It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," a family statement said on Sunday.

"Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death."

MIT president Leo Rafael Reif expressed shock and grief at Swartz's death, and tapped computer science and engineering professor Hal Abelson to lead a "thorough analysis" of MIT's involvement in the JSTOR case.

"I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many," Reif said in a statement.

"It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy."

Swartz had pleaded not guilty to charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes carrying a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a one million dollar fine.

No comment

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who filed the indictment against Swartz, said at the time: "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."

When asked for comment on Swartz's death and his family's accusations, US Attorney's Office spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling told AFP news agency: "We want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time."

Swartz was only the latest face of a decades-old movement in the computer science world to push more information into the public domain.

His case highlights society's uncertain, evolving view of how to treat people who break into computer systems and share data not to enrich themselves, but to make it available to others.

"There's a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands," Swartz said in a 2012 speech about his role in defeating the Internet copyright law known as SOPA.

Under the law, he said, "new technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we'd always taken for granted."

Tributes poured in on Sunday from friends, former colleagues and internet luminaries alike.

"Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep," tweeted Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

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