The news that well-known Web activist and developer Aaron Swartz took his own life on Friday resounded across the Internet at an amazing speed during this past weekend.
Many who knew him privately, worked with him on the various projects, and received his help with theirs wrote moving and insightful tributes to this genius of a man that accomplished many important things that greatly indebted us all.
Among these things were also some that attracted negative attention from U.S. authorities – namely, his “breaking into” MIT’s JSTOR archive (a massive online archive of digitized scientific journals and academic papers) and alleged theft of over 4 million digital documents with the intent on distributing them freely online.
This action resulted in charges that could have lead to his imprisonment for up to 35 years, and it is believed that this was one of the main reasons for his tragic demise.
MIT has, in the meantime, initiated an internal investigation into their behavior when they discovered Swartz’s “break in,” hoping for a thorough analysis of the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made at the time, in order to understand and to learn from their actions.
“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in a statement to staff. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT.”
Later this Sunday, MIT’s official website was rendered inaccessible to visitors following what seems to have been a DDoS attack by hacker collective Anonymous. When access to the site was finally restored, a subdomain of the website sported a protest statement by Anonymous.
“Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing — an ideal that we should all support,” it stated.
“Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.”
They finished with a call for a reform of “computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them”, “reform of copyright and intellectual property law”, “greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response”, and a “renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.”
In a similar vein, Swartz’s family claims that his death is the “product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
In the meantime, as Ali Hayat has rightfully noticed, it seems that “trying to disseminate knowledge, quite literally by making academic journal articles available online, is a greater crime than bringing down the United States economy through ‘corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking’.”
There is no doubt that the circumstances of the death of this modern-day Prometheus will be analyzed and commented by many in the following days and months, and it remains for us to hope that it will ultimately trigger some positive changes.