A data crusader, a defendant and, now, a cause

Noam Cohen / New York Times News Service /

At an afternoon vigil at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sunday, Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old technology wunderkind who killed himself Friday, was remembered as a great programmer and a provocative thinker by a handful of students who attended.

And he was remembered as something else, a hero of the free culture movement — a coalition that can range from Wikipedia contributors, Flickr photographers and online educators to prominent figures like Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and online vigilantes like Anonymous. They share a belief in using the Internet to provide easy, open access to the world’s knowledge.

“He’s something to aspire toward,” said Benjamin Hitov, a 23-year-old Web programmer from Cambridge, Mass., who said he had cried when he heard about Swartz. “I think all of us would like to be a bit more like him. Most of us aren’t quite as idealist as he was. But we still definitely respect that.”

The U.S. government has a very different view of Swartz. In 2011, he was arrested and accused of using MIT’s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers kept by JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals.

At his trial, which was scheduled to begin in April, he faced the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison.

Friends and family say the prospect of that punishment haunted him for two years and led to his suicide.

Swartz was a flash point in the debate over whether information should be made widely available. On the one side were activists like Swartz and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Students for Free Culture. On the other side were governments and private corporations who argued that some information must be kept private for security or commercial reasons.

After his death, Swartz has come to symbolize a different debate over how aggressively governments should pursue criminal cases against people like him who believe in “freeing” information.

In a statement, his family said in part: “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 M.I.T. contributed to his death.”

On Sunday evening, the president of MIT, L. Rafael Reif, announced that he had appointed a prominent professor, Hal Abelson, to “lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present.” He promised to share the report with the MIT community, adding, “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

Late Sunday, MIT’s website was inaccessible. Officials there did not provide a cause.

While Swartz viewed his making copies of academic papers as an unadulterated good, spreading knowledge, the prosecutor compared Swartz’s actions to using a crowbar to break in and steal someone’s money under the mattress. On Sunday, she declined to comment on Swartz’s death out of respect for his family’s privacy.

The question of how to treat online crimes is still a vexing one, many years into the existence of the Internet.

Prosecutors have great discretion on what to charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law cited in Swartz’s case, and how to value the loss. “The question in any given case is whether the prosecutor asked for too much, and properly balanced the harm caused in a particular case with the defendant’s true culpability,” said Marc Zwillinger, a former federal cybercrimes prosecutor.

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