Tech VIPs, family take to Web with sorrow, anger over Swartz

Tim Berners-Lee and Lawrence Lessig are among those who express sorrow and/or anger at Aaron Swartz's suicide. Swartz's family announces memorial Web site and also points finger at federal prosecutors and MIT.

A 15-year-old Aaron Swartz with Lawrence Lessig at the launch party for Creative Commons in 2002. Wikimedia Commons/Gohsuke Takama

The suicide of 26-year-old computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz has inspired expressions of sorrow and anger from the tech community throughout the day today.

World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote a poem in honor of Swartz, which he posted to a forum on the W3C's Web site (he also tweeted an abridged version):


Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,
we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,
we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,
parents all,
we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.


Author and blogger Cory Doctorow posted a tribute on Boing Boing, saying, in part:

Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.

Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig published an angry blog post that discussed the legal actions that were being taken against Swartz by the U.S. government in regard to Swartz's alleged theft of millions of documents from MIT and the Jstor database. The post, titled "Prosecutor as Bully," says that "the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a 'felon.'" It begins on a note of grief:

(Some will say this is not the time. I disagree. This is the time when every mixed emotion needs to find voice.)

Since his arrest in January, 2011, I have known more about the events that began this spiral than I have wanted to know. Aaron consulted me as a friend and lawyer. He shared with me what went down and why, and I worked with him to get help. When my obligations to Harvard created a conflict that made it impossible for me to continue as a lawyer, I continued as a friend. Not a good enough friend, no doubt, but nothing was going to draw that friendship into doubt.

The billions of snippets of sadness and bewilderment spinning across the Net confirm who this amazing boy was to all of us...

And this afternoon, Swartz's family, and his partner, Taren Stinebricker-Kaufmann, released their official statement about Swartz's passing, announcing a Web site they're setting up as a repository of stories and memories about him, and saying that the behavior of MIT and the U.S. District Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts played a role in Swartz's death:

Official Statement from the Family and Partner of Aaron Swartz:

Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.

Aaron's insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable--these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We're grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.

Aaron's commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.

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 MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney's office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

Aaron's funeral will be held on Tuesday at Central Avenue Synagogue, 874 Central Ave., Highland Park, Ill., 60035. Further details, including the specific time, will be posted at http://rememberaaronsw.com, along with announcements about memorial services to be held in other cities in coming weeks.

Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com

Among other things, Swartz co-authored the "RSS 1.0" specification of RSS, was arguably a co-founder of Reddit and was the founder of the nonprofit group Demand Progress, which was active in the anti-SOPA battle. He was a crusader for what he saw as the freedom of information.

An image of Swartz posted on Reddit today. Jacob Appelbaum

Police had arrested Swartz in July 2011 for allegedly stealing 4 million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jstor, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. The authorities claimed he broke into a restricted-access computer wiring closet at MIT and accessed that network without authorization.

If convicted, Swartz faced a maximum of $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison after the government increased the number of felony counts against Swartz to 13 from 4.

News of Swartz's suicide came only days after Jstor announced this week that it would make "more than 4.5 million articles" publicly available for free.

As noted by AllThingsD, in 2011 Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said in regard to the case, "Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars."

CNET has contacted Ortiz's office for comment, and we'll update this post when we hear back.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif offered his condolences, saying that the school's community was "extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many."

"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," Reif said in a statement. "I have asked professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."

As many of today's outpourings noted, Swartz had struggled with bouts of depression.

CNET's Charles Cooper contributed to this report.

Update, January 13 at 1:45 p.m. PT: Adds statement from the president of MIT.

About the author

Edward Moyer is an associate editor at CNET News and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch.

 

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