Internet activist Aaron H. Swartz died by suicide in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, Jan. 11, according to his uncle, Michael Wolf, in a comment to The Tech. Swartz was 26.
“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” confirmed Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech early Saturday morning.
Swartz was indicted in July 2011 by a federal grand jury for allegedly downloading millions of documents from JSTOR through the MIT network — using a laptop hidden in a basement network closet in MIT’s Building 16 — with the intent to distribute them. (Both JSTOR and MIT had decided to drop the charges, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the case.)
Swartz subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he then worked for Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.” He appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.
The case — with a trial then scheduled for April 1, 2013 — has been dismissed as a result of Swartz’ death, according to a court document filed Monday morning, as reported by the Boston Globe.
The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, founded Infogami which later merged with the popular social news site reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded DemandProgress.org, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”
On Saturday, Swartz’ family and partner released an official statement on rememberaaronsw.com, a site that has grown since then to become an online memorial to Swartz. In addition to remembering Swartz for his “insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance,” and his dedication to online activism, the statement also called out MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office.
“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” Swartz’ family and partner wrote in the official statement. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
In a conversation with The Tech, Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, furthered:
“MIT put institutional concerns over compassion, compromising everything MIT stands for. To me, that is the fundamental problem, and I’d like to see that addressed so what happened to my son doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
According to court documents filed on Oct. 5, 2012, MIT had released details and logs of Aaron Swartz’ use of the MIT network to law enforcement without a warrant or subpoena. Swartz asked the court to suppress this data from MIT, asserting that MIT’s policy permits disclosure “only” in the face of a “court order or valid subpoena,” but MIT Information Services & Technology (IS&T) disagrees, as the policy does not contain the word “only.”
When responding to The Tech’s inquiries in October, MIT defended its actions as necessary to “protect its network,” but head of IS&T Marilyn T. Smith was unable to explain how MIT’s decision to disclose information without a subpoena would protect its network.
However, according to Robert Swartz, Greg Morgan and Jaren Wilcoxson of MIT’s General Counsel said to him on two occasions that there was a warrant or a subpoena, which they later admitted did not exist. As of the time of publishing, Morgan and Wilcoxson have not responded to The Tech’s requests for comment.
“It was very difficult for us to communicate with MIT,” said Robert Swartz. “And yet they cooperated with the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney, despite statements of neutrality.”
MIT and JSTOR respond
Both JSTOR and MIT have released statements in response to Swartz’ death.
“This is one case that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset,” wrote JSTOR on Saturday in a statement released online. The digital library repository reiterated its message that Swartz had settled any civil claims JSTOR might have had against him in 2011, when he returned all data in his possession. In an earlier July 2011 statement, JSTOR wrote, “Once this was achieved, we had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.”
MIT followed on Sunday with an email from President L. Rafael Reif reaching out to the MIT community.
“Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community,” wrote Reif, “and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.”
In the email, Reif announced that Hal Abelson PhD ’73 — Electrical Engineering & Computer Science professor and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation — would be leading a “thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement” from fall 2010 to the present, specifically describing “the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made.” According to Abelson, it is too early to predict the timeline of this process, but Reif has promised that the resulting report will be made public.
Beyond Reif’s email, MIT has declined to make further statements at this time, “both out of respect for those mourning Aaron’s death and because we want to allow Professor Hal Abelson to do his work with minimal distraction,” wrote Associate Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson in an email to The Tech.
Swartz’ death ignited a firestorm of discussion over the Internet, where he was regarded as something of a folk hero.
Hacker News, a social news site popular within the technology community, saw its entire front page dominated with posts about Swartz for two days. On Twitter, supporters of Swartz tweeted PDFs of academic papers in tribute of Swartz’ advocacy of free information. And last Sunday, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous claimed credit for taking down MIT’s network for roughly three hours, using two subdomain websites to post a farewell message to Swartz as well as call for a reformation of “computer crime laws,” “copyright and intellectual property laws,” greater recognition for “oppression and injustices,” and a commitment to a “free and unfettered internet.”
Several petitions have also sprung up in response to Swartz’ death. On Jan. 12, a We the People petition was created, calling to remove Carmen Ortiz, the United States District Attorney who prosecuted Swartz’ case, from office. As of the time of publication, over 34,000 people had signed the petition, surpassing the 25,000 signatures required (within 30 days) to prompt an official review and response from the White House.
On Jan. 14, a petition was posted on the MIT Society for Open Science website, calling for MIT to apologize for its “silence regarding the unjust federal prosecution against Aaron Swartz.” It argued that Swartz’ actions caused “little or no harm to MIT or any individuals,” that his use of the network to access JSTOR articles was legal, that he never distributed any of the articles, and that JSTOR asked for criminal litigation against Swartz to be dropped.
Yan Zhu ’12, who authored the petition with Franck Dernoncourt G and others outside the MIT community, said that they have received no response from the Institute. At press time, over 300 people have signed the petition, many of whom are MIT students and alumni. Zhu is also coordinating a series of memorial hackathons that will focus on projects supporting causes that Swartz championed.
The Tech has compiled a detailed interactive timeline of events related to the trial at bit.ly/swartztimeline.
Stan Gill, Tushar Kamath, Joanna Kao, Janelle Mansfield, and Ethan A. Solomon contributed reporting.