Colleagues of 'seer of the web' Aaron Swartz face dark questions over his suicide

He was an internet pioneer – but now the foremost IT college in America faces questions in its possible role in the tragedy

If it’s possible to judge someone by the status of those who pay them tribute in death, then Aaron Swartz was an internet colossus.

The campaigner for web freedom and co-inventor of the RSS content distribution system was found hanged in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday. The following day Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, wrote on Twitter: “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.”

While those who loved and respected him mourned their loss, the reasons why a visionary like Aaron Swartz would choose to take his own life remained in doubt. One theory is that the death of the 26-year-old, who suffered from depression, was connected to his prosecution for alleged data theft. Yesterday America’s foremost technical university, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took what could be the first step towards solving that mystery when it ordered an internal investigation into what role it may have had in the tragedy.

Mr Swartz was a hero to activists committed to ensuring maximum and free access to knowledge and content on the internet, a person of nearly exotic brilliance who helped invent RSS when he was barely a teen and who co-founded the social sharing site Reddit. But as colleagues filled the ether with paeans and tributes to his achievements – and his family and friends prepared for his funeral today at a synagogue in Highland Park, north of Chicago –  attention turned to his 2011 arrest for allegedly stealing thousands of scientific articles from a closed archive at MIT called JSTOR with intent to distribute them for free on content-sharing websites. Mr Swartz stood accused of recklessly damaging a computer when he took his laptop into MIT’s building and illegally downloaded close to four million scientific papers, which he allegedly believed should have been available to all. He was due to stand trial on 13 charges of data theft this spring and was facing fines and up to 30 years in prison – longer than his shortened life – had he been convicted.

Already controversial, the prosecution’s case will now come under even greater scrutiny. Critics have accused prosecutors in Boston of harrying Mr Swartz and losing any sense of proportion as they pursued their case. Since the weekend, in excess of 1,500 copyright-protected articles have been made accessible for free on the web by their authors and owners as a tribute to Swartz under the common name, #pdftribute. 

“He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius,” Larry Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, wrote in his blog. Mr Swartz was a fellow at Harvard and attached to the Safra Centre when he allegedly hacked into JSTOR. A petition signed by 12,000 people so far has been sent to the White House demanding the sacking of the prosecutor who was in charge of the Swartz case, US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. “[He was] a soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think?” Professor Lessig went on. “That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

Some have suggested that while JSTOR asked prosecutors to drop the case, the authorities at MIT took the opposite view. MIT’s actions gave Mr Ortiz “the excuse he needed to continue his war against the ‘criminal’ who we who loved him knew as Aaron”, Professor Lessig added.

The MIT investigation into these and other claims has been ordered by the university’s president, Rafael Reif. He appointed Hal Abelson, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, to lead the probe.

“I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” Mr Reif said in a statement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

In a statement issued over the weekend, the family of Mr Swartz did not hesitate to point a finger towards the government that was preparing to prosecute him. His death, it said, was a “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach”. The statement specifically blamed decisions by the Massachusetts prosecutors’ office and MIT.

Activists who considered Mr Swartz their pied piper took early revenge on MIT by hacking into its website and crashing it over the weekend. But Professor Abelson, its chosen investigator, is also a fighter for intellectual freedom on the web. Maybe MIT has finally done something supporters of Aaron Swartz can agree with.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star