NEW YORK – Internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz, who was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment Friday, struggled for years against a legal system that he felt had not caught up to the information age. Federal prosecutors had tried unsuccessfully to mount a case against him for publishing reams of court documents that normally cost a fee to download. He helped lead the campaign to defeat a law that would have made it easier to shut down websites accused of violating copyright protections.
In the end, Swartz’s family said, that same system helped cause his death by branding as a felon a talented young activist who was more interested in spreading academic information than in the fraud federal prosecutors had charged him with.
The death by suicide of Swartz, 26, was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” his family said in a statement Saturday.
Swartz was only the latest face of a decades-old movement in the computer-science world to push more information into the public domain. His case highlights society’s uncertain, evolving view of how to treat people who break into computer systems and share data not to enrich themselves, but to make it available to others.
“There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands,” Swartz said in a 2012 speech about his role in defeating the Internet copyright law known as SOPA. Under the law, he said, “new technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we’d always taken for granted.”
Swartz faced years in prison after federal prosecutors alleged that he illegally gained access to millions of academic articles through the academic database JSTOR. He allegedly hid a computer in a computer utility closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded the articles before being caught by campus and local police in 2011.
“The government used the same laws intended to go after digital bank robbers to go after this 26-year-old genius,” said Chris Soghoian, a technologist and policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project.
Existing laws don’t recognize the distinction between two types of computer crimes, Soghoian said: Malicious crimes committed for profit, such as the large-scale theft of bank data or corporate secrets; and cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public.
Swartz was an early advocate of freer access to data. He helped create Creative Commons, a system used by Wikipedia and others to encourage information sharing by helping people to set limits about how their work can be shared. He also helped create the website Reddit and RSS, the technology behind blogs, podcasts and other web-based subscription services.