Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet activist facing $1 million in fines and 35 years in federal prison, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Friday.
The legal woes that led to him preferring a noose around his neck began in a Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office in July 2011, when he was charged with "wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer." The charges were later upgraded from four to 13 felony charges.
He faced these charges because he hid a laptop in a closet at MIT that downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the non-profit digital library JSTOR, which is short for Journal Storage. Thousands of academic institutions pay licensing fees so students can access the articles, but since Swartz wasn't licensed and it was done through a hidden method that masked the downloads, the Department of Justice decided it was a crime.
JSTOR contacted Swartz, made him stop and had him promise that the files weren't being copied or shared. Then they were satisfied, but the federal government's lawyers, obviously with nothing better to do, decided to run this criminal down.
"It was the government's decision whether to prosecute, not JSTOR's," a release on JSTOR's site, after the charges were filed, said. "As noted previously, our interest was in securing the content. Once this was achieved, we had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter."
In a statement posted this weekend from Swartz's family and friends, they expressed their own grief, and their anger with the federal prosecutors.
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy," the release said. "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."
This wasn't the first time Swartz had gotten into trouble for freeing information from costly controls.
In 2009, he downloaded 20 percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records database.
"Pacer is just so awful," said Carl Malamud, the leader of the effort and founder of a nonprofit group, Public.Resource.org, in a New York Times article at the time. "The system is 15 to 20 years out of date."
The article continued, "Worse, Mr. Malamud said, Pacer takes information that he believes should be free — government-produced documents are not covered by copyright — and charges 8 cents a page."
Since this download did not give the Administrative Office of the United States Courts the 8 cents per page that they usually charge, the case was given to the FBI to investigate, though no charges were filed.
Swartz entered the tech world a boy genius, spending his teenage years helping to shape many of the protocols and standards that define the modern Internet culture — Creative Commons, RSS, one of Reddit's initial components.
He had struggled with depression in the past, which, combined with the prospect of being locked up until the age of 60, goes a long way to explain why he did what he did. But nothing can explain the impact of this loss, of who he was and what he would have contributed and what will happen without him.
Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, released his own statement on Twitter when he heard the news:
Aaron is dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.
(Zach White is a Havre Daily News reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].)