Web activist Aaron Swartz, charged with hacking MIT archive system, dies at age 26

Web entrepreneur and political activist Aaron Swartz, who made headlines in 2011 when he was charged with hacking into MIT’s network and mass downloading millions of documents from a subscription-based archive, took his life in Brooklyn Friday, according to a statement from his family and partner.

Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment Friday, according to the statement and the New York Medical Examiner’s Office.

“We are in shock and have not yet come to terms with his passing,” said Swartz’s family in the statement. “We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.”

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Swartz was a giant in the hacking community, and eulogies for the young man flooded social media Saturday.

“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep,” read a tweet from the account of Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web.

Swartz was an activist for free information on the Internet.

At age 14, he helped develop RSS, a system that quickly distributes updated Web pages to other websites or people. According to his online biography, he was the cofounder of online news site Reddit and the founder of nonprofit political action group Demand Progress.

In July 2011, Swartz was charged in US District Court in Boston with hacking into the archive system JSTOR on MIT’s network in 2010 and downloading more than 4 million articles, some of which were only available for purchase. Authorities said Swartz planned to distribute the information free on file-sharing websites. At the time, he was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. According to court documents, Swartz pleaded not guilty to the charges on Sept. 24, 2012. A spokeswoman for the United States Department of Justice declined to comment on what will happen with the case pending against Swartz.

In their statement, Swartz’s family slammed his prosecution. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” reads the statement. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.

“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. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

In remembrances posted online, Swartz’s friends recalled an intense thinker who could have changed the world.

“Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues,” wrote Cory Doctorow, science fiction author, activist, and co-editor of the blog Boing Boing, who said he had known Swartz since Swartz was 14 or 15. “I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”

Swartz’s funeral will be held Tuesday in Illinois, where he grew up. He will be remembered at Central Avenue Synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., according to his family, who have set up a memorial website at rememberaaronsw.com.

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