Was MIT to blame for the death of activist Aaron Swartz?
Aaron Swartz, the Internet free speech activist who created RSS and helped found Reddit, killed himself on Friday, aged 26, while facing trial for alleged copyright infringement, that his supporters described as “bullying”. MIT, which many say bears part of the blame for his death, has promised to investigate its role.
Internet activists and friends have expressed grief and outrage that he was being hounded by the US justice system for a “crime which had no victims”. Swartz allegedly downloaded excessive amounts of material from the JSTOR system for storing academic papers, in protest at restrictions on research. Although JSTOR dropped its charges, many blame MIT for allowing the prosecution proceedings to go ahead – and MIT Preisdent L Rafael Reif has promised to investigate the university’s role.
Aaron Swartz remembered
Reif has appointed Hal Abelson, one of the founders, along with Swartz, of the Creative Commons, to investigate MIT’s role in the lawsuit which apparently drove Swartz to take his life. The decision was welcomed by leading activist Larry Lessig, who tweeted, there could be “no better judge”.
Swartz’s alleged crime has been described as little more than taking out excessive numbers of library books, yet the government pursued him “as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed,” said Lessig on his blog. “But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar.”
A prodigious talent, Swartz contributed to the development of the RSS protocol while aged 14, and then developed Infogami, a site which merged into the early stages of social news-sharing site Reddit. The creator of HTML and the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, said “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder,” in a much shared Tweet.
Aaron 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.
— Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) January 12, 2013
Swartz was a leader of the campaign which successfully blocked the US government’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2011 to 2012, and worked with other activist groups.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” said a statement from Swartz’s family and friends. “Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”
Swartz’s funeral will be held on Tuesday at Central Avenue Synagogue in Illinois.
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