Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz killed himself at age 26 after crusading for more Internet transparency and, his family says, being harrassed by the U.S. Attorney's office and MIT. Creative Commons

The shocking suicide of Aaron Swartz continues to resonate across the tech world.

Swartz, a leading Internet freedom activist and co-owner of social news site Reddit, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment Friday. Although Swartz died by suicide, his friends and family have released a statement accusing the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of playing a role in his death.

Swartz was facing decades in prison and a possible $1 million fine on charges of illegally downloading 5 million academic articles from JSTOR on MIT’s on-campus network. He killed himself two years to the day after his initial arrest and had long battled depression, at times detailing the personal struggle on his blog.

“Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge,” the statement read.

JSTOR is an online resource that hosts a massive library of journal articles, books and primary source material. Students and teachers are often afforded free access to the site and are able to download a number of articles at once before they’re required to pay more.

Prosecutors say Swartz, using an MIT network, took millions of articles with the intent to distribute them for free on peer-to-peer networks. Swartz turned in his hard drive after being identified by authorities, at which point he told the Huffington Post that JSTOR was not interested in pursuing further legal action.

“The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge,” read a JSTOR statement addressing Swartz’s death. “At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”

Perhaps in response to the criticism about restricting access, JSTOR has made 4.5 million academic articles free to the public.

U.S. Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann disagreed, though, and with the help of the federal government (along with information from MIT) indicted Swartz for the crime.

“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” Ortiz said in 2009.

Their decision to press the matter has been met with widespread criticism and confusion around the Internet since Swartz hanged himself on Friday, gaining traction on Boing Boing, All Things D, and Swartz’s own Reddit, just to name a few.

“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 Swartz family statement read.

“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. 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.”