Internet prodigy hangs himself
02:32 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz sends shock waves through the Web

Swartz faced allegations that he stole millions of online documents from MIT

His death prompted Anonymous to claim credit for a hack on MIT's websites

Episode also has prompted soul searching at MIT, which will hold an internal investigation

To the people of the Internet who knew his work, he was an “enormous intellect,” a “brilliant and determined spirit” and a “hero of the open net.”

To federal prosecutors, he was a criminal.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz continued to send shock waves Monday through the hacker community, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the larger online world.

Swartz, a digital prodigy who helped develop social-news site Reddit and RSS, the technology that allows websites to send updates to subscribers, was found hanged Friday in his Brooklyn, New York, apartment. His death has inspired a flurry of online tributes and mobilized Anonymous, the loosely defined collective of so-called “hacktivists” who oppose attempts to limit Internet freedoms.

Swartz, 26, faced allegations that he stole millions of online documents – mostly scholarly papers – from MIT through the university’s computer network. Some saw it as a harmless stunt, but U.S. prosecutors disagreed and slapped Swartz with federal charges for which he could have faced decades in prison.

His family issued a statement Saturday criticizing prosecutors for seeking “an exceptionally harsh array of charges (for) an alleged crime that had no victims,” and claiming that decisions made by prosecutors and MIT officials “contributed to his death.”

Swartz’s suicide also prompted some soul searching at MIT. President L. Rafael Reif has requested an analysis of MIT’s involvement in the case against Swartz, from the time the university first perceived unusual activity on its Web network in 2010 to the present.

“I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made,” he said in an e-mail Sunday to members of the MIT community.

“All of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” Reif added. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

That didn’t stop Anonymous from claiming credit late Sunday for defacing several MIT websites. Users of MIT’s network lost access to most sites for nearly three hours Sunday night, according to the Tech, the campus newspaper. Someone claiming to represent Anonymous posted a statement online calling the government’s prosecution of Swartz “a grotesque miscarriage of justice.”

The statement then listed four “wishes,” including reform of computer crime laws and a renewed commitment to “a free and unfettered Internet.”

The defaced pages appear to have been removed Monday. MIT’s news office did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment to CNN on Swartz’s case, citing respect for the family.

Carmen M. Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, quietly dropped the charges against Swartz on Monday. Swartz’s funeral is scheduled for Tuesday in Highland Park, Illinois.

Meanwhile, by Monday afternoon scores of people had posted tributes to Swartz on Reddit and on a memorial site, Remember Aaron Swartz.

“I and others like me feel his death so keenly in part because we aspire to be the misfit, the wunderkind, the maker that he was,” wrote blogger David Brunton.

“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues,” wrote his friend Cory Doctorow, co-editor of tech blog Boing Boing. “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

Using the hashtag #pdftribute, hundreds of academic researchers also posted their papers online via Twitter Sunday and Monday to honor Swartz’s memory.