Aaron Swartz' Death Fuels MIT Probe, White House Petition to Oust Prosecutor

PHOTO: Aaron Swartz is pictured in this file photo.
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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched an internal probe of the events leading up to the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz, who was facing federal charges for allegedly hacking into the school's journal archives.

"It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy," MIT President L. Rafael Reif said in a statement. "Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT."

Swartz' legal troubles began two years ago when prosecutors said he illegally downloaded millions of scientific journals from MIT and JSTOR, a journal storage repository. Swartz, 26, had been an advocate for open access and the freedom of information online.

He was due to stand trial in April, and if convicted, could have faced decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines. Swartz had pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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Hal Abelson, a professor at MIT, who is also founding director of both Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, has been tapped to lead the school's internal probe.

"I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took," Reif said.

Furor over Swartz' death has reached the White House in the form of a petition asking for the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz who pressed the case against Swartz.

The petition has been signed by nearly 12,000 people and needs 25,000 signatures by Feb. 11 to garner an official response from the White House.

Swartz's family and supporters have laid blame for his death on an aggressive prosecution that used its powers to "hound him into a position where he was facing a ruinous trial, life in prison."

"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach," Swartz' family and partner said in a statement that also had harsh words for MIT.

"Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death," the statement said.

JSTOR, which had stated it did not want to pursue charges against Swartz, posted a statement offering condolences to his family.

"He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit," JSTOR said in a statement. "The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset."

In the aftermath of his death, the justice department said it was dropping all charges against him – pro-forma, since there was no longer a defendant to prosecute – and the mysterious hackers' group Anonymous broke onto the MIT website and posted a message in his memory.

The message, before the page was taken down, said, among other things, "We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them."

When Swartz was 14, he helped create RSS software, revolutionizing the way people subscribed to and consumed information online.

As an adult, he co-founded Reddit, a social news website, and railed against Internet censorship through the political action group Demand Progress.

His funeral is scheduled for Tuesday, in Highland Park, Ill., his family said, and they said that remembrances of Swartz and donations in his name could be made at rememberaaronsw.com.

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