Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz ... dead at 26. Photo: Michael Francis McElroy

The family of a prominent internet freedom fighter who committed suicide weeks before he was due to go on trial for allegedly stealing millions of scholarly articles is blaming prosecutors for his death.

Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn, New York apartment on Friday night, his family and authorities said. The 26-year-old had fought to make online content free to the public and as a teenager helped create RSS, a family of web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users.

Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to [Aaron's] death. 

Aaron Swartz's family

The death of the young digital prodigy, who had worked with the Australian group GetUp!, sparked grief and anger on Sunday from online rights advocates.

As a memorial to Swartz, some academics have been sharing their articles for free with the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute.

In 2011, Swartz was charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them freely available.

He had pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month. If convicted, he faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.

MIT's website, mit.edu, appeared to not function properly soon after Swartz's death, under an apparent denial-of-service attack by hactivists. As of yet, no one has formally taken responsibility for the attack, although Anonymous affiliated Twitter accounts have hinted at having some involvement.

In a statement released on Saturday, Swartz's family in Chicago expressed not only grief over his death but also bitterness towards federal prosecutors pursuing the case in Massachusetts against him.

"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 US Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death," they said.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who filed the indictment against Swartz, said at the time: "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."

Contacted by AFP, the attorney's office refused immediate comment on his death.

Elliot Peters, Swartz's California-based defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan, told The Associated Press on Sunday that the case "was horribly overblown" because Swartz had "the right" to download from JSTOR, a subscription service used by MIT that offers digitised copies of articles from more than 1000 academic journals.

Peters said even the company took the stand that the computer crimes section of the US Attorney's office in Boston had overreached in seeking prison time for Swartz and insisting — two days before his suicide — that he plead guilty to all 13 felony counts. Peters said JSTOR's attorney, Mary Jo White — the former top federal prosecutor in Manhattan — had called Stephen Heymann, the lead Boston prosecutor in the case.

"She asked that they not pursue the case," Peters said.

Heymann did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

Swartz was regarded as something of a folk hero on the internet by people familiar with his work, which included forming a company that merged with the news and information website Reddit.

A zealous advocate of public online access, he was extolled over the weekend by those who believed as he did. He was "an extraordinary hacker and activist", the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group based in California wrote in a tribute on its home page.

"He refined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement," said David Moon, program director for Demand Progress, a grassroots organisation that Swartz co-founded to combat internet censorship.

Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director for Safra Centre for Ethics where Swartz was once a fellow, wrote: "We need a better sense of justice. ... The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon'."

"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, inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote in one tweet.

"Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues," wrote prominent blogger and friend Cory Doctorow.

"I think he could have revolutionised American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so."

"Playing Mozart's Requiem in honour of a brave and brilliant man," tweeted Carl Malamud, an internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.

Before the Massachusetts' case, Swartz aided Malamud in his effort to post federal court documents for free online, rather than the few cents per page that the government charges through its electronic archive, PACER. Swartz wrote a program in 2008 to legally download the files using free access via public libraries, according to The New York Times. About 20 per cent of all the court papers were made available until the government shut down the library access.

The FBI investigated but didn't charge Swartz, he wrote on his website.

Three years later, Swartz was arrested in Boston. The US government accused Swartz of using MIT's computer network to steal nearly 5 million academic articles from JSTOR.

Prosecutors said Swartz hacked into MIT's system in November 2010 after breaking into a computer wiring closet on campus. Prosecutors said he intended to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites.

JSTOR didn't press charges once it reclaimed the articles from Swartz, and some legal experts considered the case unfounded, saying that MIT allows guests access to the articles and Swartz, a fellow at Harvard's Safra Centre for Ethics, was a guest.

Experts puzzled over the arrest and argued that the result of the actions Swartz was accused of was the same as his PACER program: more information publicly available.

The prosecution "makes no sense", Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal said at the time. "It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

Swartz faced 13 felony charges, including breaching site terms and intending to share downloaded files through peer-to-peer networks, computer fraud, wire fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer, and criminal forfeiture.

JSTOR announced last week that it would make more than 4.5 million articles publicly available for free.

Swartz's funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Highland Park, Illinois.

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AP, AFP and Fairfax Media