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 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.
Swartz was only the latest face of a decades-old movement 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 articles through the academic database JSTOR. He allegedly hid a computer in a utility closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded the articles before being caught by police in 2011.
Swartz helped create Creative Commons, a system used by Wikipedia and others to encourage information sharing. He also helped create the website Reddit and RSS, the technology behind blogs, podcasts and other Web-based subscription services.