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Computer activist Aaron Swartz dead of an apparent suicide

Posted by Your Town  January 12, 2013 03:10 PM

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NEW YORK (AP) — Authorities say a co-founder of Reddit and activist who fought to make online content free to the public has been found dead.

A spokeswoman for New York’s medical examiner says 26-year-old Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment and was found Friday.

Swartz was a prodigy who as a young teenager helped create RSS. He co-founded the social news website Reddit and directed the political action group Demand Progress that campaigns against Internet censorship.

In 2011, he was arrested in Boston and charged with stealing millions of scientific journals from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Swartz pleaded not guilty. His federal trial on computer fraud charges was to begin next month. If convicted, he could have faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.

News of his death spread quickly, as friends and colleagues posted on twitter and other platforms. See a round up here.

According to the 2011 indictment, Swartz hacked into the MIT network so he could mass download millions of documents from an archive operated by the nonprofit group JSTOR. When computer security tried to block his access, he allegedly broke into a basement closet of an MIT building to hard-wire his computer to the network.

Prosecutors said Swartz violated JSTOR’s licensing agreement prohibiting mass downloading of documents and the use of those documents for anything other than personal work. Authorities said Swartz planned to distribute the information free on file-sharing websites, cheating the archive of subscription fees, some as high as $50,000.

Of the 4.8 million documents downloaded, 1.7 million should only have been available for purchase through a sales service.

“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,’’ US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a statement at the time of the indictment, according to the Globe. “It is equally harmful to the victim, whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.’’

Swartz received an outpouring of support from colleagues and friends who took to blogs and websites to defend his work and maintain that the charges against him are heavy-handed. More than 15,000 people had signed a letter of support for Swartz on the website DemandProgress.org.

According to a Globe article in 2011, Swartz already had regular, licensed access to the database through his work at Harvard. But prosecutors said he was so committed to the immediate acquisition of materials that he used special software to enable the quick downloading. He changed the Internet protocol address on his computer several times to circumvent security guards, according to court records.

In one case in October 2010, he allegedly used two computers, and the download pace “was so fast that it brought down some of JSTOR’s computer servers,’’ the court records stated. As a result, users had difficulty getting access to the system, prosecutors said, and at one point licensed access for them was cut off.

In 2008, Swartz was investigated in a similar case in the downloading of millions of documents from the federal court system during a trial run of a federal database. No charges were brought.

David Segal - executive director of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group that Swartz founded - said at the time of the 2011 indictment that the charges amount to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.’’

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