Aaron Swartz found dead Friday

Internet legend faced copyright-related legal issues before death

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Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup, photographed in 2009.
Sage Ross—Flickr
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Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup, photographed in 2009.
Sage Ross—Flickr
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Internet activist Aaron H. Swartz died by suicide in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, Jan. 11, according to his uncle, Michael Wolf, in a comment to The Tech. Swartz was 26.

“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” confirmed Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech early Saturday morning.

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 by a federal grand jury for allegedly downloading millions of documents from JSTOR through the MIT network — using a laptop hidden in a basement network closet in MIT’s Building 16 — with the intent to distribute them. (Both JSTOR and MIT had decided to drop the charges, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office decided to pursue the case.)

Swartz subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he then worked for Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.” He appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.

The case — with a trial then scheduled for April 1, 2013 — has been dismissed as a result of Swartz’ death, according to a court document filed Monday morning, as reported by the Boston Globe.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, founded Infogami which later merged with the popular social news site reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”

Family response

On Saturday, Swartz’ family and partner released an official statement on, a site that has grown since then to become an online memorial to Swartz. In addition to remembering Swartz for his “insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance,” and his dedication to online activism, the statement also called out MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death,” Swartz’ family and partner wrote in the official statement. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

In a conversation with The Tech, Robert Swartz, Aaron’s father, furthered:

“MIT put institutional concerns over compassion, compromising everything MIT stands for. To me, that is the fundamental problem, and I’d like to see that addressed so what happened to my son doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

According to court documents filed on Oct. 5, 2012, MIT had released details and logs of Aaron Swartz’ use of the MIT network to law enforcement without a warrant or subpoena. Swartz asked the court to suppress this data from MIT, asserting that MIT’s policy permits disclosure “only” in the face of a “court order or valid subpoena,” but MIT Information Services & Technology (IS&T) disagrees, as the policy does not contain the word “only.”

When responding to The Tech’s inquiries in October, MIT defended its actions as necessary to “protect its network,” but head of IS&T Marilyn T. Smith was unable to explain how MIT’s decision to disclose information without a subpoena would protect its network.

However, according to Robert Swartz, Greg Morgan and Jaren Wilcoxson of MIT’s General Counsel said to him on two occasions that there was a warrant or a subpoena, which they later admitted did not exist. As of the time of publishing, Morgan and Wilcoxson have not responded to The Tech’s requests for comment.

“It was very difficult for us to communicate with MIT,” said Robert Swartz. “And yet they cooperated with the Secret Service and the U.S. Attorney, despite statements of neutrality.”

MIT and JSTOR respond

Both JSTOR and MIT have released statements in response to Swartz’ death.

“This is one case that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset,” wrote JSTOR on Saturday in a statement released online. The digital library repository reiterated its message that Swartz had settled any civil claims JSTOR might have had against him in 2011, when he returned all data in his possession. In an earlier July 2011 statement, JSTOR wrote, “Once this was achieved, we had no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.”

MIT followed on Sunday with an email from President L. Rafael Reif reaching out to the MIT community.

“Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community,” wrote Reif, “and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.”

In the email, Reif announced that Hal Abelson PhD ’73 — Electrical Engineering & Computer Science professor and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation — would be leading a “thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement” from fall 2010 to the present, specifically describing “the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made.” According to Abelson, it is too early to predict the timeline of this process, but Reif has promised that the resulting report will be made public.

Beyond Reif’s email, MIT has declined to make further statements at this time, “both out of respect for those mourning Aaron’s death and because we want to allow Professor Hal Abelson to do his work with minimal distraction,” wrote Associate Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson in an email to The Tech.

Internet reaction

Swartz’ death ignited a firestorm of discussion over the Internet, where he was regarded as something of a folk hero.

Hacker News, a social news site popular within the technology community, saw its entire front page dominated with posts about Swartz for two days. On Twitter, supporters of Swartz tweeted PDFs of academic papers in tribute of Swartz’ advocacy of free information. And last Sunday, the “hacktivist” group Anonymous claimed credit for taking down MIT’s network for roughly three hours, using two subdomain websites to post a farewell message to Swartz as well as call for a reformation of “computer crime laws,” “copyright and intellectual property laws,” greater recognition for “oppression and injustices,” and a commitment to a “free and unfettered internet.”

Several petitions have also sprung up in response to Swartz’ death. On Jan. 12, a We the People petition was created, calling to remove Carmen Ortiz, the United States District Attorney who prosecuted Swartz’ case, from office. As of the time of publication, over 34,000 people had signed the petition, surpassing the 25,000 signatures required (within 30 days) to prompt an official review and response from the White House.

On Jan. 14, a petition was posted on the MIT Society for Open Science website, calling for MIT to apologize for its “silence regarding the unjust federal prosecution against Aaron Swartz.” It argued that Swartz’ actions caused “little or no harm to MIT or any individuals,” that his use of the network to access JSTOR articles was legal, that he never distributed any of the articles, and that JSTOR asked for criminal litigation against Swartz to be dropped.

Yan Zhu ’12, who authored the petition with Franck Dernoncourt G and others outside the MIT community, said that they have received no response from the Institute. At press time, over 300 people have signed the petition, many of whom are MIT students and alumni. Zhu is also coordinating a series of memorial hackathons that will focus on projects supporting causes that Swartz championed.

The Tech has compiled a detailed interactive timeline of events related to the trial at

Stan Gill, Tushar Kamath, Joanna Kao, Janelle Mansfield, and Ethan A. Solomon contributed reporting.

Michael Lissack about 11 years ago

Final thoughts re Aaron Swartz.

The more I have thought about this the more disturbed I get. My take: a brilliant young man with mental health issues is "adopted" by the Internet/PC/Info should be free crowd (yes Larry, Tim and Cory I mean you). He is coddled and "groomed." He is a kid, he can act out the things they dare not (but do talk about and fantasize about etc). If he gets into trouble, they as the "respected elders" can vouch for him and all will be well. He gets to do the dirty work (and as a result gets the praise from these elders which is personality needs) and they get the public platitudes. But this time Uncle Sam and MIT refused to go along. The brilliant but troubled Aaron cannot accept that he has done something "wrong" after all all his mentors tell him it was right and for a good cause and the government has no case. If he accepts the plea deal then his role as the "kid who can do anything" vanishes. If he fights on, well it seems his mentors are unable to deliver. All through this no one is dealing with Aaron's mental health issues and seemingly everyone has failed to teach him about either personal responsibility or cause and effect. Aaron is drowning in his loss of self identity. He does the unthinkable. The mentors and the parents -- Aaron's enablers and those who were "using him" for their own ends -- hold much of the responsibility but that defies their sense of self identity (we of the the "higher ethical ground" are always doing only that which is the "right thing to do") -- so they lash out and blame others.

In the world of the users (my word for those who abused their relationship with Aaron) MIT was wrong for not seeing that allowing repeated trespassing and hacking of its property and networks served a "greater good." The government was wrong for not agreeing that "moral intentions" trump actual physical criminal acts. The media can be used to help divert attention and guilt from those who really hurt Aaron and contributed to his downfall.

The "Information should be free" community abused one of its own most brilliant members. It is time that community look in a mirror and begin to accept responsibility for its own ugly role in Aaron's tragedy.

Annabelle about 11 years ago

Sounds like Aaron Swartz was an incredibly gifted and talented young man who counted on the very protections that turned on him. I extend my sympathies to all who knew and loved him.

Keith Yost about 11 years ago

Re: Lissack

I didn't share Swartz' politics, certainly didnt agree with his actions, and was mostly indifferent to whether or not U.S. district attorneys decided to pursue the matter, and whether or not MIT voluntarily gave logs of his theft to authorities. So if Swartz' suicide prompts some level-headed debate about how intellectual property should be protected, and how we should rewards its creators while simultaneously trying to make its benefits available to as wide a population as possible, then perhaps I would find myself on the same side of the debate as you.

But I dont see the value in playing some blame game where we harp on the DAs or MIT or Cory Doctorow or somesuch as the reason why Swartz is dead. It's a tragedy (it is even if you think his actions were wrong), but not one very tightly connected to policy debates about patents and copyright and so on. IP law didnt kill him. He killed himself. This wasn't some foreseeable facet of how we crafted our policies, it isn't as if policy makers have to weigh the lives of future Aaron Swartzes as part of some new policy balancing act.

Let the cases for and against the status quo of intellectual property law rise and fall on their own merits, and leave the suicide of a troubled man out of it.

NoMoreDonations about 11 years ago

I, for one, will no longer be donating to MIT, as I have, each and every year since I graduated. This has upset me to my core and I look forward to reading the report by professor Abelson when it is made public.

If I deem the actions on the part of MIT to be worthy to the institution, its faculty, and most importantly, its students, both past and present, and not simply giving in to the whims of an overzealous individual prosecutor or group of individual prosecutors in the U.S. government or Massachusetts state government, I may donate again in the future; in the meantime, I will be urging all fellow MIT alumni and alumnae to do the same and divest from MIT - all those I know, and those I don't know. I will soon be spreading the word on the various social media platforms.



MIT Crime Club about 11 years ago

(cf. Comment No. 1)


Debtor: Lissack, Michael R

Naples, FL

Creditor: Internal Revenue Service

Amount: $130,850

Lawsuit Record

Plaintiff: Graham, Mark R

Defendant: Lissack, Micahel

Address: Naples, FL


c. 2013 Thomson Reuters

Aimee Smith PhD \'02 about 11 years ago

In '04 I experienced a small taste of what MIT does not attempt to prosecute - I was attacked physically by MIT police officer Joseph D'Amelio. D'Amelio was later arrested and fired for drug trafficking. If MIT had done due diligence in my case, it might have saved itself the later embarrassment. I also have reason to believe I was not the only MIT community member to be physically victimized by D'Amelio.

Another case for clearer contrast is that of then MIT student Charvak Karpe. He seems to have admitted stalking and even hacking into the computer of fellow student Julie Carpenter who subsequently took he own life on April 30, 2001. Now, this could have been a big cyber charge that most could rally behind. A deranged stalker who installs spying software onto his victim's computer having the book thrown at him by the US attorney? But no. Karpe was never charged with any crime.

Yet Aaron Swartz, who harmed no one, was zealously pursued with MIT's active support.

I am sure there are many other cases that can make this point and I think it would be helpful if people shared those.

RIP Aaron Swartz - Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.

MIT Crime Club about 11 years ago

(cf. Comment No. 6)

Smith is correct about the Carpenter case.

The family settled with MIT one day before the assistant dean for Student Discipline and Conflict Resolution was scheduled to testify. For the plaintiff.

The dean, Betty H. Sultan, retired the same year. In 2005 she became a founding advisor to the MIT Crime Club.

kay sieverding about 11 years ago

I'm an MIT grad with no criminal record. DOJ detained me for 5 months with no evidentiary hearing, no bail hearing, no published procedure and no criminal charge.

I'm trying to sue DOJ under the Privacy Act for misuse of its computer systems. DOJ used the Prisoner Tracking System to detain me and has already provided me with printouts. DOJ has already conceded that I wasn't criminally charged. However DOJ claimed in Federal Court that no criminal charge is required for legal use of the Prisoner Tracking System.

DOJ published a Privacy Act notice in the Federal Register vol 69 p 23213 saying that the categories of records in the Prisoner Population Management /Prisoner Tracking System are "Any and all information necessary to complete administrative processes, safekeeping, health care, and disposition of individual Federal prisoners who are in custody pending criminal proceedings, together with any law enforcement related records generated during such custody."

Since I wasn't criminally charged that should give me a claim for damages but DOJ denies this is even possible.

I live in the Boston area 617 894 5274 and would appreciate advise or help.

Socialist Worker about 11 years ago

They came after him with a baseball bat labeled 30 years and $1,000,000. To extract a felony charge with a six month sentence. If that isn't an example of tyranny I don't know what is?

The next problem is also clear. MIT knowingly allowed this prosecution. President Reif should take responsibility and resign. Appointing a professor to do a white washing job doesn't cut it. If you agree with me send him a message saying so.

The Federal Government in the role of not just one but all three branches has decided that we no longer have a right to a jury trial but only a plea bargain. MIT should end all cooperation with their so called justice system. This of course will not happen because it would result in ending the Military Institute of Technology's lucrative contracts something they can't do without.

These laws and the DMCA are Microsoft creatures. Bill Gates and his BSA (Business Software Alliance) might just as well 'pulled the trigger'.

Kim O'Brien '75

SHADAT about 11 years ago

Sign this Whitehouse petition to make the DOJ accountable for Aaron Swartz death