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Hackers in Protest Over Death

MIT Under Fire for Suicide of Swartz

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 31, 2013 00:01

On Friday, Jan. 11, computer programmer, political organizer, and Internet activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn, NY apartment. The untimely death of the 26-year old was ruled suicide by hanging. The news was confirmed in The Tech, the student newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which had received confirmation from Michael Wolf, an uncle of Swartz, and from Swartz’s attorney, Elliot Peters. Swartz’s girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, was reported to have discovered the body. The aftermath of the tragedy, including the investigation of MIT’s role in his death, demonstrates the astounding impact Swartz made on the advocacy of free and open Internet.


Swartz was perhaps most associated with social news site Reddit, which he co-founded along with Creative Commons, the licenses for which he helped code as a teenager. Additionally, the gifted programmer and technologist created the Python framework web.py as free software, and was a member of Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab. Swartz also co-founded the Internet activist organization Demand Progress, which launched a campaign against the Internet censorship bills Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), through which Swartz reflected his passions for sociology, civic awareness, and political activism.


While fulfilling the position of a research fellow at Harvard University, Swartz was arrested on Jan. 6, 2011 and charged with 13 counts of felony for entering a restricted-access computer-wiring closet at MIT where he allegedly downloaded large portions of JSTOR (short for Journal Storage), a U.S.-based digital repository for academic journals and data, in order to release it to the public for free use. The charges included wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Swartz made his court appearance this past September, where he faced a possible sentence of a $1 million fine and up to 35 years in prison. The impetus behind Swartz’s actions laid in his opposition to JSTOR’s practice of compensating publishers instead of authors out of the fees it charged for access to articles, fees which limit public access to academic work that is supported by public funding.


An official statement released by Swartz’s family alludes to how their son was bullied into taking his own life, and states that MIT and the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office played a role in contributing to the suicide. The hacktivist group Anonymous responded to Aaron’s death in its own way, compromising several high-profile websites, including that of the U.S. government, on which it placed a video making a statement that the government had “crossed the line.” Additionally, more than 48,000 people signed an online petition to the White House demanding that U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen Ortiz be removed “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz,” and a similar one has been created for prosecutor Stephen Heymann.


MIT in particular has been under fire for its role in the prosecution and subsequent death of Aaron Swartz, rendering it an easy target for Anonymous, whose members hacked two websites in MIT’s domain and replaced them with tributes to Swartz. The hacked web pages called upon the Internet community to carry on Swartz’s legacy in advocating the open access movement, and to demand that the U.S. copyright system make improvements. At any point in the prosecution of Swartz, the activists argued, MIT could have disagreed with the allegations of computer fraud and harm, which likely would have led Ortiz to drop the charges or not insist on prison time. Harvard professor and friend of Swartz, Larry Lessig, said that MIT placed institutional interests ahead of compassion, while Swartz’s family similarly claimed that MIT “refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”


On Jan. 18, MIT’s email system was taken out of use for 10 hours as a result of more Anonymous group activity, and on Jan. 22, emails sent to MIT were redirected by hackers to the Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology. Previously, MIT had maintained an “open campus” policy with an open computer network, but in the wake of the hacking incidents, MIT appointed professor of electrical engineering and computer science Hal Abelson to do an internal investigation of the university’s role in Swartz’s prosecution.


Last Friday, Anonymous led peaceful protests in honor of Swartz outside of the John Joseph Moakley courthouse in downtown Boston, with a simultaneous protest occurring on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. These protests were part of the group’s “#OpAngel” mission, which came to fruition following Swartz’s suicide, in an effort to stop the federal bullying that included an unfair prosecution against crimes that were “victimless and non-malicious.” In a release last week by Anonymous, the group wrote, “We will not be silenced as he was and we have the ability to continue his work in providing open access for all.”

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