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Washington - The death of prominent Internet freedom fighter Aaron Swartz, who took his own life at the age of 26 weeks before he faced trial, sparked grief and anger on Sunday from online rights advocates.
“Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way,” wrote Peter Eckersley from the California-based activist group Electronic Frontier Foundation.
David Moon of Swartz's anti-Internet censorship group Demand Progress said the hacktivist “refined advocacy for the progressive and open-information movement.”
Swartz, who was just 14 when he co-developed the RSS feeds that are now the norm for publishing frequent updates online and went on to help launch social news website Reddit, hanged himself in his New York apartment on Friday.
He had been due to stand trial in April for allegedly breaking into a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to plug into the computer network and download millions of academic journal articles from the subscription-only JSTOR service.
Swartz had written openly about suffering periodically from depression, but friends and family suggested the looming trial contributed to his suicide and accused MIT and prosecutors of being over-zealous in pursuing their case.
“Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. 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,” a family statement said.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif expressed shock and grief at Swartz's death, and tapped computer science and engineering professor Hal Abelson to lead a “thorough analysis” of MIT's involvement in the JSTOR case.
“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,” Reif said in a statement.
“It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”
Swartz had pleaded not guilty to charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes carrying a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and a $1-million fine.
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who filed the indictment against Swartz, said at the time: “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Her office refused immediate comment on his death.
Meanwhile, tributes poured in from friends, former colleagues and Internet luminaries alike.
“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,” tweeted Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.
Prominent blogger and friend Cory Doctorow said Swartz “could have revolutionised American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”
Contributors to a memorial page set up online in Swartz's honour included many strangers who simply believed in his cause and wanted to share their sense of loss.
“Though I never met Aaron, I believe all of us who value freedom of expression and the ability to share information around the world instantly via the Internet, owe him a huge debt of gratitude,” wrote Fiona Bateson.
Several reactions to Swartz's suicide were tinged with bitterness and some directly attacked prosecutors for relentlessly pursuing serious criminal charges that they argued were trumped up.
“We need a better sense of justice,” wrote Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, faculty director for the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, where Swartz was once a fellow.
“The question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labelled a 'felon.'“
Two years before the MIT incident, the FBI launched an investigation after Swartz released a trove of US federal court documents online that are usually only accessible at a fee through the government's Public Access to Court Electronic Records, or PACER.
In less than three weeks, he managed to download more than 18 million pages with an estimated value of $1.5-million to his home in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park.
A post on Swartz's memorial site, rememberaaronsw.tumblr.com, said his funeral would be held on Tuesday in Chicago: “Friends, family and admirers all welcome.” - Sapa-AFP