Aaron Swartz’s family, friends blame MIT, federal government for suicide

Josh Peterson Tech Editor
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The family and partner of Internet folk hero and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz  are blaming MIT and the Justice Department for bullying him to his death.

Swartz, who was 26 years old, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment Friday, after battling the Justice Department for more than a year and a half over allegations he illegally downloaded approximately 4 million scientific documents at MIT’s campus, with the goal of making the information freely and publicly available.

The documents were provided by JSTOR, the private online archiving service for academic research papers that contracted with MIT to provide students and researchers access to the information. Many of the documents contained research funded by taxpayers. (RELATED: Internet advocate and RSS pioneer commits suicide weeks before trial)

JSTOR dropped charges against Swartz, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the case anyway. Swartz, who pleaded not guilty, was charged with 13 counts of felony hacking, potentially facing a million-dollar trial in April and approximately 30 years in federal prison.

Swartz committed suicide two days after JSTOR decided to make 4.5 million documents publicly available online.

He had publicly battled depression for several years, writing in one 2007 blog post that the illness makes “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.”

But in an official statement released Saturday evening, his family and partner said, “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,” they said.

“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.”

Larry Lessig — Harvard Law School professor, political and Internet activist — also leveled blame against the federal government.

In a blog post Saturday, Lessig wrote, “For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to ‘justice’ never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled ‘felons.'”

“In that world,” he continued, “the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a ‘felon.'”

“For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge,” he said.

“And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it,” said Lessig.

Fifty years in jail,” he said, “charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the ‘I’m right so I’m right to nuke you’ ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.”

“One word, and endless tears,” said Lessig.

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