Aaron Swartz, Internet activist, pioneer and innovator, died on Friday. He was 26.
Swartz committed suicide in his New York apartment, according to his family.
Swartz was facing legal challenges in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts from an incident in 2011 following the unauthorized download of 4.8 million scientific and literary papers from the digital database JSTOR through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If found guilty, Swartz could have faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
By reports, Swartz had been dealing with depression – in part due to his legal troubles. To its credit, JSTOR had more or less forgiven Swartz for the transgression and recently made a limited supply of its digital archives available for free. MIT and the U.S. District Court were not quite as forgiving.
At the time of the indictment, Demand Progress issued a statement calling Swartz’s actions akin to, ”checking out too many library books.” In a now-infamous statement, the U.S. District Court said, “stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
The family, friends and partner of Swartz issued a public statement on Saturday, calling his death the “product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.” The full statement is below.
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. 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. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. 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.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
On Sunday, MIT issued a public response on the death of Swartz, in an email to the press from MIT president L. Rafael Reif:
“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. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,”
“I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. 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. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it,” Reif wrote.
Swartz’s funeral will be held on Tuesday, January 15th at Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Avenue, Highland Park, Illinois 60035. The specific time of the funeral as well as remembrances and donations can be found at the site http://rememberaaronsw.com
NOTE: As of Monday, the Justice Department has dropped its charges against Swartz today, citing his death