Internet activist Aaron Swartz commits suicide

Aaron Swartz, a programmer and Internet activist who was facing federal hacking charges, committed suicide on Friday in New York City, according to multiple media reports. He was 26.

Swartz's uncle and attorney confirmed the news to The Tech, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) student newspaper.

When he was just 14, Swartz helped create RSS, a software that lets people subscribe to online content.

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He later founded a company that merged with the popular social media site Reddit. 

In 2010, Swartz founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group promoting social justice. Along with other groups, Demand Progress organized a successful campaign last year to defeat online piracy legislation backed by the entertainment industry.

Swartz's first run-in with the law came in 2008 when he published millions of federal court records online.

The documents are publicly available through the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) service, but the government charges users to access each page.

Swartz's free online library of court records was shut down, but the Justice Department chose not to pursue charges against him.

In 2011, according to prosecutors, Swartz broke into a computer network at MIT and downloaded 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, a subscription service of academic articles.

He was not a student at MIT at the time, but he was a fellow at nearby Harvard University.

The Justice Department charged Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

He faced up to 35 years in prison and fine of up to $1 million.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement when Swartz was charged.

In a blog post, Lawrence Lessig, a political activist and professor at Harvard Law School who briefly represented Swartz, accused the government of "bullying." 

He said that if the allegations were true, then what Swartz did was wrong, but that prosecutors should have pursued a more reasonable punishment. 

"Anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed," he wrote.

Swartz had spoken and written about his struggles with depression since he was a teenager.