Internet activist’s family blames feds for suicide

The family of Internet activist Aaron Swartz is accusing federal prosecutors of driving him to commit suicide.

Swartz, who was facing computer hacking charges, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday. He was 26.

{mosads}”Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” the family said in a statement issued late on Saturday. “Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

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 a 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.

His trial was scheduled to begin in April.

In their statement, Swartz’s family said prosecutors pursued “an exceptionally harsh array of charges.”

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

JSTOR eventually asked prosecutors to drop the charges, but MIT did not take a clear stand.

In a statement on Sunday, MIT President L. Rafael Reif called Swartz a “gifted young man” and offered his “profound condolences” to Swartz’s family.

“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” Reif said.

He said the university will prepare a report reviewing its handling of the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston did not respond to a request to comment on Sunday. 

Swartz was an accomplished programmer and activist who argued that more online information should be free to the public. 

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

He later founded a company that merged with the wildly 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.

“Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life,” his family said.

Swartz had publicly discussed his struggles with depression since he was a teenager.

—Updated with a comment from MIT at 4:56 p.m.

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