Open data activist and developer Aaron Swartz was found dead Friday in his New York home. The 26-year-old activist, who tirelessly campaigned for net freedom, was facing federal charges for allegedly downloading 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR on the MIT campus in 2011. Even though JSTOR decided not to bring charges against Swartz, federal prosecutors decided to pursue charges anyways. If found guilty, Swartz faced $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison.
Swartz, who suffered from depression, committed suicide and his loved ones alleged in a statement that his death was tied to stress caused by his legal woes:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. 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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
The aggressive pursuit of Swartz by federal officials has drawn criticism over the severity of the charges, and questions over the types of laws used to pursue crimes committed online. Charges were brought against Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — the same law used to bring charges against Bradley Manning.
US-based privacy expert Chris Soghoian told the Associated Press that the laws, as they are, don’t differentiate between “malicious crimes committed for profit” and “cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public”.
Swartz was at the forefront of a fight for keeping the online world open, condemning the sticky tape of copyright and restrictions on information online. While at Mozilla Fest, I feel like I caught a glimpse of the kind of world that Swartz was working for — one that places the most value on sharing information, ideas, and knowledge freely. The director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito said the following during his speech at the conference:
You’re all political. Everything we’re doing today is gonna destroy businesses it’s going to take power away from those in power. You have to understand that what we’re doing we’re being very disruptive. It’s very scary for people. The problem is that those people who are afraid of us are trying to shut us down.
Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index. She tweets from @missyasin