The family and partner of web activist Aaron Swartz lashed out at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and prosecutors, suggesting their moves to hound him may have contributed to his suicide.
“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 statement said.
“The U.S. 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,” it added.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said they wanted to respect the family’s privacy and did “not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time.” MIT could not be reached for comment.
Swartz, who helped create an early version of the Web feed system RSS and was facing federal criminal charges in a controversial fraud case, has committed suicide at age 26, authorities said on Saturday.
Police found Swartz’s body in his apartment in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on Friday, according to a spokeswoman for the city’s chief medical examiner, which ruled the death a suicide by hanging.
Swartz is widely credited with being a co-author of the specifications for the Web feed format RSS 1.0, which he worked on at age 14, according to a blog post on Saturday from his friend, science fiction author Cory Doctorow.
RSS, which stands for Rich Site Summary, is a format for delivering to users content from sites that change constantly, such as news pages and blogs.
Over the years, he became an online icon for helping to make a virtual mountain of information freely available to the public, including an estimated 19 million pages of federal court documents from the PACER case-law system.
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves,” Swartz wrote in an online “manifesto” dated 2008.
“The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. … sharing isn’t immoral - it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy,” he wrote.
That belief - that information should be shared and available for the good of society - prompted Swartz to found the nonprofit group DemandProgress.
The group led a successful campaign to block a bill introduced in 2011 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Stop Online Piracy Act.
The bill, which was withdrawn amid public pressure, would have allowed court orders to curb access to certain websites deemed to be engaging in illegal sharing of intellectual property.