NEW YORK — The family of a Reddit co-founder who committed suicide weeks before he was to go on trial on federal charges that he stole millions of scholarly articles is blaming prosecutors for his death.
Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment 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.
In 2011, he 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.
In a statement released Saturday, Swartz’s family in Chicago expressed not only grief over his death but also bitterness toward federal prosecutors pursuing the case against him in Massachusetts.
“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,” they said.
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 digitized copies of articles from more than 1,000 academic journals.
Peters said even the company took the stand that the computer crimes section of the U.S. 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.
Reached at his home in Winchester, Mass., Heymann referred all questions to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, Christina DiIorio-Sterling. She did not immediately respond to an email and phone message from the AP seeking comment.
A zealous advocate of public online access, Swartz was extolled Saturday 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.
“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.
Swartz co-founded the social news website Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast, as well as the political action group Demand Progress, which campaigns against Internet censorship.
He apparently struggled at times with depression, writing in a 2007 blog post: “Surely there have been times when you’ve been sad. Perhaps a loved one has abandoned you or a plan has gone horribly awry. ... You feel worthless. ... depressed mood is like that, only it doesn’t come for any reason and it doesn’t go for any either.”
Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director of the Safra Center 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.”’
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 percent 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 federal 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 Center 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 this 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, Ill.