MIT Probes Role in Case Leading to Web Activist’s Death

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is probing its role in the U.S. case against Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who killed himself as he faced a federal computer-fraud trial and the possibility of jail.

Swartz, 26, was accused in 2011 of gaining unauthorized access to MIT’s network to put free copies online of subscription-only journal articles. After his death, MIT professors were among the many academics paying tribute to him by posting their own work online without charge.

His family blamed MIT and U.S. prosecutors for his death, which the New York Medical Examiner’s Office ruled a suicide by hanging. Leo Rafael Reif, president of MIT, expressed his condolences in a letter e-mailed to the university community and initiated a “thorough analysis” of the institute’s response to Swartz’s use of its computer network.

“Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism,” Reif wrote.

On his blog, Swartz wrote of feeling “psychological pain” and compared it to his work in programming. He also blogged about fighting depression. The looming federal charges may have contributed to his suicide, said Michael Peck, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Los Angeles.

“If you’re already depressed, the threat of jail time could be a trigger for suicide,” Peck said. “That would be a devastating thing to look forward to.”

Suicide, Depression

About 70 percent of people who commit suicide are depressed, and the threat of incarceration may have conflicted with Swartz’s conception of himself as a force for social good, Peck said.

Almost four times as many men as women die of suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 25 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” his family wrote in a statement. “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.”

As a teenager, Swartz helped create a technology called Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which lets Web users gain access to online information. He also co-founded the news and information site Reddit, as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy bills, according to his website.

University Connection

In July 2011, Swartz was indicted for allegedly downloading more than 4 million articles and documents from a subscription-only service. He was challenging the idea that access to academic documents should be confined to the elite, Swartz’s lawyer, Elliot Peters of San Francisco-based Keker & Van Nest LLP, said in an interview.

“He was trying to make a point,” Peters said. “He was certainly agitated about the case before him and was scared of what they were trying to do to him.”

Swartz snuck into a room at MIT with a laptop and used the university’s connection to download much of the archive of JSTOR, a fee-based service for distributing scientific and literary journals, Bloomberg reported.

Swartz was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR and downloading most of the library.

Publicly Available

“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,” Swartz’s family wrote. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

Representatives from the U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts declined to comment, citing respect for the family’s privacy. Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz dismissed the case against Swartz today in a filing in federal court, citing his death.

JSTOR, in a statement, said it had settled its own claims against Swartz in June 2011 and that he had returned the data. JSTOR said while it regretted being brought into the federal case, it had a responsibility to protect the owners and creators of its content.

Swartz was mourned by academics, executives and fellow activists, and the Internet was inundated with tributes to him.

“His stunts were breathtaking,” wrote Canadian author Cory Doctorow, who knew Swartz.

Online Tributes

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor and Internet activist, wrote in a blog post that the criminal case against Swartz was misguided. Swartz “consulted me as a friend and lawyer” in the MIT case, and he didn’t seek to profit from downloading academic papers, Lessig wrote.

“From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way,” Lessig said. “The outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior.”

Other academics took to the micro-blogging service Twitter to honor Swartz by posting free versions of their publications online, using the identifying hashtag #pdftribute.

Hackers operating under the moniker Anonymous said in a post on Twitter yesterday that they initiated a denial of service attack on MIT’s website, using the hashtag #JusticeForAaronSwartz. The university’s website was temporarily shut down.

‘Blown Away’

Marissa Mayer, chief executive officer at Yahoo! Inc., said on Twitter that she met Swartz 11 years ago when she was an executive at Google Inc.

“We had found his blog and were blown away by his age (16) and insights,” she said.

A funeral will be held Jan. 15 at a synagogue in Highland Park, Illinois, near Chicago, according to the Swartz family statement. He is survived by his parents, Robert and Susan; younger brothers Noah and Ben; and his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, according to the statement.

The case against Swartz was U.S. v. Swartz, 11-CR-10260, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

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