A Data Crusader, a Defendant and Now, a Cause

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Correction Appended

At an afternoon vigil at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sunday, Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old technology wunderkind who killed himself on Friday, was remembered as a great programmer and a provocative thinker by a handful of students who attended.

And he was recalled as something else, a hero of the free culture movement -- a coalition as varied as Wikipedia contributors, Flickr photographers and online educators, and prominent figures like Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder, and online vigilantes like Anonymous. They share a belief in using the Internet to provide easy, open access to the world's knowledge.

"He's something to aspire toward," said Benjamin Hitov, a 23-year-old Web programmer from Cambridge, Mass., who said he had cried when he learned the news about Mr. Swartz. "I think all of us would like to be a bit more like him. Most of us aren't quite as idealistic as he was. But we still definitely respect that."

The United States government has a very different view of Mr. Swartz. In 2011, he was arrested and accused of using M.I.T.'s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers kept by Jstor, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals.

At his trial, which was to begin in April, he faced the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and up to 35 years in prison, punishments that friends and family say haunted him for two years and led to his suicide.

Mr. Swartz was a flash point in the debate over whether information should be made widely available. On one side were activists like Mr. Swartz and advocacy groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Students for Free Culture. On the other were governments and corporations that argued that some information must be kept private for security or commercial reasons.

After his death, Mr. Swartz has come to symbolize a different debate over how aggressively governments should pursue criminal cases against people like Mr. Swartz who believe in "freeing" information.

In a statement, his family said in part: "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. 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 M.I.T. contributed to his death."

On Sunday evening, M.I.T.'s president, L. Rafael Reif, said he had appointed a prominent professor, Hal Abelson, to "lead a thorough analysis of M.I.T.'s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present." He promised to disclose the report, adding, "It pains me to think that M.I.T. played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy."

M.I.T.'s Web site was inaccessible at times on Sunday. Officials there did not provide a cause, but hackers claimed responsibility.

While Mr. Swartz viewed his making copies of academic papers as an unadulterated good, spreading knowledge, the prosecutor compared Mr. Swartz's actions to using a crowbar to break in and steal someone's money under the mattress. On Sunday, she declined to comment on Mr. Swartz's death out of respect for his family's privacy.

The question of how to treat online crimes is still a vexing one, many years into the existence of the Internet.

Prosecutors have great discretion on what to charge under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law cited in Mr. Swartz's case, and how to value the loss. "The question in any given case is whether the prosecutor asked for too much, and properly balanced the harm caused in a particular case with the defendant's true culpability," said Marc Zwillinger, a former federal cybercrimes prosecutor.

The belief that information is power and should be shared freely -- which Mr. Swartz described in a treatise in 2008 -- is under considerable legal assault. The immediate reaction among those sympathetic to Mr. Swartz has been anger and a vow to soldier on. Young people interviewed on Sunday spoke of the government's power to intimidate.

"Using certain people as poster children for deterring others from doing that same action, ultimately it won't work," Jennifer Baek, a third-year student at New York Law School, said by telephone, referring to Pfc. Bradley Manning, who has been charged with multiple counts in the leaking of confidential documents, and Mr. Swartz. Ms. Baek, a member of the board of Students for Free Culture, said the comments on blogs and discussion boards she had visited since Mr. Swartz's death showed that "people aren't afraid to say this is what the injustice was."

The ingredients for trouble perhaps lay in Mr. Swartz's personal and direct approach to solving problems. As one mentor, Cory Doctorow of the popular Web site Boing Boing, wrote in tribute, he was highly impressionable and sought after and was forgiven by those he worked with and worked for.

A permanent "kid genius," Mr. Swartz had often put his skills to the task of making information more accessible. At 14 he was a co-creator of RSS, a tool that allows online content to be distribute, and then made a tidy sum as one of the creators of the social-news site Reddit, now part of Condé Nast.

But even before, and certainly after, he crusaded for open access to data. His projects include a range of influential efforts like the Internet Archive, Creative Commons, Wikipedia and the Recap collection of legal documents.

He also began more traditional projects for subjects he took an interest in. At 19, he volunteered to upload the archive of a defunct magazine he loved, Lingua Franca. In 2005, he called up the writer Rick Perlstein to offer to create a Web page for him after reading a book of his he liked.

"I smelled a hustle, asking him how much it would cost, and he said, no, he wanted to do it for free," Mr. Perlstein wrote in The Nation over the weekend. "I thought: 'What a loser this guy must be. Someone with nothing better to do.' " Mr. Perlstein writes that he ended up becoming friends, and he sent chapters of his next book, "Nixonland," to Mr. Swartz before he showed them to anyone else.

Mr. Swartz outlined his views in the manifesto: "It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral -- it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy."

And he said the stakes were clear: "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks."

Still, even many of his allies concede that Mr. Swartz's passion for free information may have taken him too far in the Jstor downloads. According to the government's indictment, in September 2010 Mr. Swartz broke into a computer-wiring closet on the M.I.T. campus; when retrieving a computer he connected, he hid his face behind a bicycle helmet, peeking out through the ventilation holes. At the time, he was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at nearby Harvard.

Some would say that perhaps a punishment for trespassing would have been warranted, but the idea that he could have seen serious prison time was infuriating. Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard Law professor who founded Creative Commons to advocate greater sharing of creative material online, called the prosecution's case absurd and said that boxing in Mr. Swartz with an aggressive case and little ability to mount a defense "made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it."

E.J. Hilbert, a former cybercrimes investigator for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that the broader issues around such activist transgressions raise many complex questions that are subject to "a lot of discretion from prosecutors." He added that the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts has long been renowned for a particularly aggressive pursuit of cybercrimes.

Jstor, for its part, declined to pursue the case and posted a note over the weekend describing Mr. Swartz as "a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the Web from which we all benefit."

Michael McCarthy, a 30-year-old animator from Providence who was also at the M.I.T. vigil, said Mr. Swartz was let down by the university. "If places like M.I.T. aren't safe for people to be a little miscreant in their quest for truth and understanding, then we're in a lot of trouble," he said.

It's unclear how much the impending case contributed to Mr. Swartz's decision to take his own life. Years back, he wrote about his struggle with depression in his blog, Raw Thoughts.

The last post he wrote on that blog, in November, was a detailed analysis of the final installment of the "Batman" series.

Having warned his readers that he was about to reveal the conclusion of the movies, he ended the post by writing: "Thus Master Wayne is left without solutions. Out of options, it's no wonder the series ends with his staged suicide."

Jess Bidgood and Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

Correction: January 14, 2013, Monday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Aaron Swartz's academic role at the time of the events at M.I.T. that led to his indictment. He was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard; he was not a Harvard student.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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