May 16, 2021

Aaron Swartz, a Data Crusader and Now, a Cause

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.”

Late Sunday, M.I.T.’s Web site was inaccessible. Officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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.

Jess Bidgood and Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

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