Angry Internet activists mourned Sunday the loss of Aaron Swartz, a US programming prodigy who took his own life at just 26, weeks before he was due to go on trial for alleged computer fraud.
“Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way,” wrote Peter Eckersley from Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading advocate for online freedom.
“He refined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement,” said David Moon, program director for Demand Progress, a group Swartz co-founded to combat Internet censorship.
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 flat 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.
Swartz had written openly about suffering periodically from depression, but friends and family suggested the looming trial contributed to his suicide and accused prosecutors of being over-zealous in pursuing their case.
“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 US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” a family statement said.
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 $1 million fine.
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.”
Contacted by AFP, the attorney’s office refused immediate comment, saying it wanted to respect the privacy of the Swartz family at this time.
Friends and former colleagues were among those who filled a memorial page set up online in Swartz’s honor.
But many contributors were strangers who believed in his cause and wanted to share their sense of loss.
“Though I never met Aaron, I believe all of us who value freedom of expression and the ability to share information around the world instantly via the Internet, owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” wrote Fiona Bateson.
“A hacker with a conscience extraordinaire, a brilliant, compassionate young man who fought for the rights of all those who believe in information freedom and network neutrality: We love you Aaron, and you will be sorely missed.”
Many remarks were tinged with bitterness and several pointed their finger directly at prosecutors for going after Swartz for what they argued were trumped up charges.
“We need a better sense of justice,” wrote Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director for the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was once a fellow.
“The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon,’” Lessig blasted.
Two years before the MIT incident, the FBI launched an investigation after Swartz released a trove of US federal court documents online that are usually only accessible at a fee through the government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER.
In 2008, that fee was eight cents per page.
According to the FBI’s profile of Swartz, which he obtained and posted online, the activist had inundated the PACER system with requests in September 2008 at the rate of one prompt every three seconds.
In less than three weeks, he managed to download more than 18 million pages with an estimated value of $1.5 million to his home in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.
“As I hoped, it’s truly delightful,” Swartz wrote of his FBI file.
A post on Swartz’s memorial site rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com said his funeral would be held on Tuesday in Chicago: “Friends, family and admirers all welcome.”