Anonymous defaces MIT homepage after death of Aaron Swartz

14 Jan 2013

Web freedom activist Aaron Swartz. Image via Wikimedia Commons, author Daniel J Sieradski

Hacker group Anonymous defaced the homepage of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) just hours after the prestigious technology school promised a full investigation into its role in the events leading up to the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz on Friday.

The internet freedom activist faced charges associated with the illegal download of 5m articles from a fee-charging database and faced the prospect of decades in jail that he believed would include a US$1m fine and up to 30 years in jail.

Swartz had used MIT’s computer network to download the articles from academic journal site JSTOR and took more than 4m documents.

While JSTOR didn’t press charges, the US Attorney’s Office pursued Swartz, who was arrested in July 2011.

Swartz, who suffered from depression, was widely viewed as something of an internet folk hero who fought and defeated proposed internet censorship legislation in the US. A computing prodigy who was never in it to enrich himself, Swartz at just 14 helped to create RSS.

Swartz’s legal troubles began when he broke into the computer networks at MIT, kickstarting a federal investigation with the threat of a US$1m fine and more than 30 years in prison.

He was found on Friday hanging in his Brooklyn apartment by his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

Swartz’s family accused the US justice system of pursuing a harsh array of charges for an alleged crime that had no victims and railed at MIT for failing to stand up for Swartz and its own community’s most cherished principles.

The president of MIT L Rafael Reif said it pained him to think the institute played any role in the series of events leading up to Swartz’s death.

Within hours, Anonymous struck, covering the MIT homepage in black and listing its views in red writing. At the time of writing, MIT’s web page had been taken offline.

On the homepage, Anonymous called for Swartz’s tragic death to be the basis for the reform of computer crime laws, intellectual property laws and copyright laws.

As well as calling for a suspension of what it describes as over-zealous prosecution, Anonymous wrote: “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.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years