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The inside story of MIT and Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist, helped launch several progressive political groups and was a major force behind a national wave of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targeted unauthorized sharing of videos and music.
Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist, helped launch several progressive political groups and was a major force behind a national wave of protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which targeted unauthorized sharing of videos and music.DANIEL J. SIERADSKI/DPA/CORBIS/FILE 2012

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CAMBRIDGE — The mysterious visitor called himself Gary Host at first, then Grace Host, which he shortened for his made-up e-mail address to “ghost,” a joke apparently, perhaps signaling mischievousness — or menace. The intruder was lurking somewhere on the MIT campus, downloading academic journal articles by the hundreds of thousands.

The interloper was eventually traced to a laptop under a box in a basement wiring closet. He was Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist. The cascade of events that followed would culminate in tragedy: a Secret Service investigation, a federal prosecution, and ultimately Swartz’s suicide.

But in the fall of 2010, the university faced a hard question: How big a threat was the “ghost” downloader? And a harder one: What should be done about him?

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