Crusader ... Edward Tufte, emeritus professor at Yale University, pays tribute to the online prodigy Aaron Swartz, shown in the background image. Photo: AP
HUNDREDS of friends and supporters of Aaron Swartz gathered in New York City to pay tribute to the free-information activist and online prodigy who killed himself last week as he faced trial on hacking charges.
A hero to data-access advocates but a thief in the eyes of prosecutors, Mr Swartz, 26, was found dead on January 11 in a suicide that has intensified debate over how authorities should treat hackers whose goal is to expand public knowledge, not make personal profits.
Friends on Saturday remembered Mr Swartz as a digital-age polymath and a crusader for the open exchange of information - an ''internet saint,'' in the words of Quinn Norton, a journalist who writes about hacker and online culture.
Doc Searls, 65, a columnist and advocate for making computer code publicly accessible, said he met Mr Swartz when the tech prodigy was a teenager and noted that the two ''were often generational bookends at conferences we went to''.
''When we're young we think our cause is a sprint, and when we're middle-aged we think it's a marathon,'' Searls said. ''But when we're old we think it's a relay race. And Aaron was the one you wanted to hand it off to.''
A grandson of the activist folk singer Pete Seeger, Kitama Jackson, read a note from his grandfather that said: ''These modern times are filled with such contradictions that experts are not agreed on what the future of the human race will be. But we can agree today that it was a tragedy for this brilliant young man to be so threatened that he [killed] himself.''
Mr Swartz died in his apartment the month before he was to go on trial in Boston.
Federal prosecutors accused him of breaking into a computer wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and tapping into the university's computer network to get millions of paid-access scholarly articles, which he planned to make available for free.
Whatever he aimed to do with the data, ''stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar'', a Boston US Attorney, Carmen Ortiz, said before Mr Swartz's death.
But his family, admirers and some legal experts condemned the case as overreaching that drove him to his death. His father, Robert Swartz, has said he ''was killed by the government''.
The digital archive that holds the articles, JSTOR, has said it regretted being drawn into the criminal case and didn't pursue any claims against Mr Swartz after he returned the data in 2011. Days before his death, the nonprofit JSTOR announced that it planned to make more than 4.5 million articles available for free.
Mr Swartz had pleaded not guilty to 13 felony charges. They carried the potential for decades in prison and enormous fines, though prosecutors have said they never intended to seek the maximum penalties.
A shaken Ms Ortiz said she was ''terribly upset about what happened'', appearing near tears as she spoke about the case. She said her office handled it fairly and appropriately.
Mr Swartz was a teenager when he helped create RSS, technology for gathering updates from blogs, news sites and elsewhere on the web. He later co-founded the social news site Reddit and Demand Progress, a group that campaigns against online censorship.
Support about suicide prevention is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14.