Policy

Internet Activist Aaron Swartz Dies, 26

Commits Suicide in New York Apartment; Facing Federal Prosecution for Hacking Info from MIT 1/14/2013 8:52 AM Eastern

 

Aaron Swartz, 26, open Internet activist who helped defeat the SOPA/PIPA antipiracy legislation in the last Congress and was instrumental in the Web blackout that focused attention on the legislative effort -- he was cofounder of Demand Progress -- committed suicide in his New York apartment Jan. 11, according to statement from the family.

While still a teenager, Swartz helped develop the RSS (real simple syndication) Web feed format which has become a staple of online news sites and helped create the predecessor to social network, reddit.

He had been charged by federal prosecutors with hacking into MIT and illegally downloading content.

"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," said his family. "Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death."

The death is likely to spark a debate over a Justice Department push to crack down on illegal Internet downloads of content, a push backed by studios and other content providers as they increasingly move distribution to the Web.

MIT president Rafael Reif sent an email to the college community over the weekend: "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."

A memorial site created by ThoughtWorks, where Swartz had been a software developer, by Monday featured numerous tributes, including one from law professor and activist Lawrence Lessig, who has pushed for copyright reforms and with whom Swartz had worked with toward that goal.

"He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying."

A funeral service is planned for Tuesday, Jan. 15, at Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Avenue, Highland Park, Ill.

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