The hactivist collective Anonymous defaced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) website over the weekend after the death of a 26-year-old regarded as an “Internet hero” who faced legal troubles for actions taken as he advocated for a free Internet.
Aaron Swartz was an activist for Internet freedom, co-founder of the social news site Reddit, and helped develop the technology behind RSS feeds, leading to his title as a “computer programming prodigy.” Swartz was found dead in his New York City apartment Friday, after committing suicide, which his family blames on the legal battle that began in 2011 after the computer genius published documents from the academic database JSTOR that would usually require a fee to download.
His death was “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” his family said in a statement Saturday.
Swartz faced years in prison after federal prosecutors alleged that he illegally gained access to millions of academic articles through JSTOR. He allegedly hid a computer in a utility closet at the MIT and downloaded the articles before being caught by campus and local police in 2011. Swartz’s actions were part of a campaign to defeat a law that would have made it easier to shut down websites accused of violating copyright protections. He plead not guilty to the charges brought against him.
“The government used the same laws intended to go after digital bank robbers to go after this 26-year-old genius,” said Chris Soghoian, a technologist and policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and technology project.
Watch WPIX’s report that had more details in Swartz’s death:
Anonymous hacked into MIT’s website posting a memoriam to Swartz. In addition to calling the lawsuit Swartz faced a “grotesque miscarriage of injustice,” the loosely connected collective of hackers wrote a list of “wishes” (via CNET):
- We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
- We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
- We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
- We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.
MIT’s website is back to normal as of Monday morning.
Shortly before being hacked by Anonymous, MIT’s President L. Rafael Reif issued a statement Saturday expressing his deepest sympathies to Swartz’s family and also stating that the university would launch its own investigation into MIT’s involvement leading to the legal situation Swartz was in before he died.
“I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” Reif wrote in his 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.”
JSTOR had dropped its case and even called the 13 charges brought against Swartz by the government seeking a prison sentence of at least seven years — up to 35 years according to some reports — excessive. Swartz’s attorney Elliot Peters told the Associated Press that JSTOR had sided with the 26-year-old after he “ gave the stuff back to JSTOR, paid them to compensate for any inconveniences and apologized.” MIT was neutral regarding Swartz’s prosecution. An early hearing was set for later this month with a trial beginning in April.
Although many agree with Swartz’s attorney that the case against him was “horribly overblown,” there are those who believe his alleged theft of the information was as harmful as that of physical property and should therefore carry a similar punishment.
“There are commercial reasons, and military and governmental reasons” why prosecutors feel they need tools to go after hackers, Theodore Claypoole, an attorney who has been involved with Internet and data issues for 25 years, said to the Associated Press. He said Swartz’s case raises the question of, “Where is the line? What is too much protection for moneyed interests and the holders of intellectual property?”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.