Everything about the suicide last friday of 26 year old Internet activist Aaron Swartz is tragic. Not only to those that knew him or knew of his actions but those who have discovered this only now through his death. Although battling with depression, a major contributory factor in his death was his ongoing prosecution by the US Attorney’s office over the illegal download of millions of academic articles hosted by the journal archive JSTOR. Swartz was originally planning on making the articles freely available through file sharing because he objected to JSTOR’s policy of charging for access of articles even when they were officially in the public domain.
Although JSTOR and MIT did not proceed with civil charges, the US Attorney’s office decided to proceed with a criminal case on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and damaging a protected computer. By November of last year, this had been increased to 13 counts and Swartz faced a maximum of $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison. In effect, this was for little more than violating the terms of reference of JSTOR’s web site and MIT’s network. The idea that Swartz could have profited from these actions or caused damage to JSTOR or MIT was patently absurd.
Although MIT was not active in the prosecution of the case against Swartz, they released network logs and security images without requiring a court order or valid subpoena. It is not clear who at MIT would have approved this but the IT department claimed that its actions were necessary to “protect its network”. Given MIT’s often public rhetoric on support of open access, it is particularly sad that these principles were set aside so easily in the case of Swartz’s actions.
Swartz was known for much more than just the incident with the download of publications. He was involved in the development of the specifications for RSS at the age of 14 and was involved in the early development of social news site Reddit. Swartz co-founded Demand Progress an activist organisation aimed at fighting Internet censorship, in particular the SOPA/PIPA acts, and more generally fighting for civil liberties, rights and government reform.
It is always tragic when someone with so much to offer and fight for is finally defeated and at such an early age. I hope that his legacy however will live on.
Update: MIT President L. Rafael Reif has published a tribute to Swartz and announced a full inquiry into the circumstances of MIT’s involvement
This didn’t stop hackers taking MIT’s website down for a short period this morning.
Academics from around the world have been posting their papers online as a tribute to Swartz’s efforts in championing open access and announcing this on Twitter using the hashtag #pdftribute.