Legal pressures contributed to death of internet activist Aaron Swartz

14 Jan 2013

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wikipedia meet-up in 2009. Image via Wikimedia Commons, author: Sage Ross

The legal and financial pressures of a potential public trial are understood to have contributed to internet activist Aaron Swartz’s death at the weekend. 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 to a US$1m fine and up to 30 years behind bars.

It is understood that a plea bargain with US Federal prosecutors fell apart and Swartz had been told he would not only have to plead guilty to a myriad of charges but was also threatened with up to three decades in prison and fines of more than US$1m.

Swartz had used MIT’s computer network to download the articles in what The Wall Street Journal described as a ‘Robin Hood-like stunt’ for internet freedom activists.

While the internet service in question JSTOR had dropped all charges against Swartz, it is understood that the US Attorney’s Office had continued to pursue Swartz.

It is understood Swartz had suffered from depression and the 26-year-old was distressed by the financial strain posed by a long drawn-out court battle and despised having to ask for financial help.

He was found on Friday hanging in the Brooklyn apartment he shared with his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman.

Commitment to social justice

In a Tumblr blog on Sunday, ‘Remember Aaron Swartz’, Swartz’s family wrote: “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,” the family wrote.

“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.”

Swartz’s family also accused MIT of failing to stand up for Swartz and its own community’s most cherished principles.


The president of MIT L Rafael Reif said the prestigious institute of technology will investigate its role in the events leading up to Swartz’s death.

In an email to the press at the weekend, Reif wrote: “Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.

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

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