Internet rallies for liberator of information

MIT and prosecutors draw fire after the suicide of Aaron Swartz

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Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup, photographed in 2009.
Sage Ross—Flickr
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Aaron Swartz enters 16-004T on Jan. 4, 2011, face exposed.
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Swartz enters 16-004T on Jan. 6, 2011, hiding behind helmet.

Internet activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide on Jan. 11, 2013, igniting a firestorm of discussion over the Internet — where he was regarded as something of a folk hero — and triggering questions regarding the prosecution, MIT, and JSTOR’s involvement in United States v. Aaron Swartz.

In July 2011, Swartz was federally indicted 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 of distribution. He had appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty. The case, with a trial then scheduled for April 1, 2013, was dismissed as a result of Swartz’s death.

In the days following Swartz’s death, his family and partner released an official statement on, a site that grew into 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’s family and partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote in the official statement. “Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

The Internet reacted strongly to Swartz’s death. The popular technological social news site Hacker News saw its front page dominated with Swartz posts for two days, and supporters of Swartz tweeted PDFs of academic papers as tribute for his advocacy of free information. Several petitions also sprung up, including a We the People petition calling for the removal of Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. District Attorney who prosecuted Swartz’s case, from office, which has since acquired over 50,000 signatures. On Jan. 14, a petition authored by Yan Zhu ’12, Frank Dernoncourt G, and others outside the MIT community was posted on the MIT Society of Open Science website, calling for MIT to apologize for its “silence regarding the unjust federal prosecution against Aaron Swartz.”

In the early months of 2013, MIT experienced several events as a result of Swartz’s suicide, raising security concerns. In the latter half of January, MIT’s network fell to a denial-of-service attack allegedly by the Internet activist group Anonymous, causing users of MIT’s network to lose access to most sites, MIT’s own web properties to become inaccessible on the web at large, and two MIT subdomain homepages to be replaced by messages calling “the government’s prosecution of Swartz … a grotesque miscarriage of justice.” Later in the month, MIT was hacked again, with MIT URLs redirecting to a webpage claiming credit for the attack in remembrance of Aaron Swartz, and on Feb. 23, 2013, MIT’s area of Massachusetts Avenue was shut down after Cambridge Police received a report — later confirmed to be a hoax — of a gunman on campus going after MIT President L. Rafael Reif and school staff in retaliation for Swartz’s death.

The Sunday after Swartz’s death, Reif reached out to the MIT community, writing that “although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community, and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.” On Jan. 22, 2013, Reif officially charged Hal Abelson PhD ’73 — Electrical Engineering & Computer Science professor and a founding director of Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation — with leading a “thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement” starting from September 2010. The public report resulting from that analysis (released by MIT on July 30 and authored by Abelson, economics professor Peter A. Diamond PhD ’63, and Andrew Grosso, a Washington-based lawyer) found that the Institute maintained “neutrality” during Swartz’s federal prosecution, and while there was no wrongdoing, MIT missed the chance to show “leadership” in the two years prior to Swartz’s suicide. Stinebrickner-Kauffman called the report a “whitewash.”

“MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman wrote in a statement. “That’s not neutral.” In an interview with The Tech in August, Abelson called that claim “80 percent false.”

Meanwhile, alongside Abelson’s analysis, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government reform began an investigation in January after Swartz’s death and requested access to materials used in his trial, including MIT documents, many of which had already been publicly known and published by The Tech and The New York Times, among others. Following a March 15, 2013 motion by the Estate of Aaron Swartz to publicly release those documents, MIT filed a legal memorandum arguing that, while it was not opposed to releasing the documents, names and identifying information of members of the MIT community should be redacted, as well as any information that may expose MIT network vulnerabilities. Also citing privacy concerns, JSTOR requested a similar redaction for its employees. In May 2013, U.S. District Judge Nathaniel M. Gorton agreed with MIT and JSTOR’s requests.

In July, MIT and JSTOR filed similar motions intervening in the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit by Wired investigations editor Kevin Poulsen against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, filed on April 12, requesting the release of any Secret Service documents regarding Swartz. On Aug. 12, the Secret Service began releasing the first batch of redacted version of its files on Swartz.

On the anniversary of Swartz’s death, a preview of documentary about Swartz entitled The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz was released. On the same day, an MIT website,, was hacked by Anonymous again, displaying a message headlined “the day we fight back” and calling for a mass Internet protest scheduled for Feb. 11, sponsored by organizations such as Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Mozilla, and Reddit.

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 Demand Progress, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.” In June 2013, he was inducted posthumously into the Internet Hall of Fame.