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Internet Activist Aaron Swartz Dies At 26


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Let's talk now about the life and death of Aaron Swartz. He was a 26-year-old computer prodigy and social activist. He created new technologies. He led campaigns that touched millions of lives. And last Friday, Mr. Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was facing a criminal investigation at the time. NPR's Steve Henn is covering this story. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: For listeners who might not have heard of Aaron Swartz, even if he did touch their lives, would you talk a little bit about his life?

HENN: Sure. Most recently, Mr. Swartz helped lead the fight against SOPA, the Stop Online Privacy Act. The bill would've given the U.S. law enforcement greater authority to block payments or to shut down websites with pirated material. Critics like Swartz argued that it was far too broad and would give the government the ability to take down big chunks of the web, entire domains, for alleged violations.

So he helped organize an enormous online protest and a partial web blackout that basically resulted in killing that bill.

INSKEEP: And he was somebody who had the prominence to do that, even though he was only 26, because he had been influential for years.

HENN: That's right. He was one of the people who helped create the RSS feed. For non-techies, that stands for Real Simple Syndication and it's what makes it possible to have stories by a given author about a certain subject delivered to your inbox automatically. He also founded a web start-up which merged with Reddit, which is now a hugely popular social news website.

He was really both a technologist and an online activist who believed that as much information should be free and as widely distributed online as possible. Ultimately, it was his decision to act on those convictions that got him in trouble with federal prosecutors.

INSKEEP: When did that happen?

HENN: Well, problems began in 2009. He downloaded and published approximately 20 percent of a database of federal court documents. At that point, he was investigated by the FBI, but not indicted and not prosecuted. However, in early 2011, he was arrested for downloading 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an academic archive, which requires a subscription and has a pay wall. He allegedly walked into a computer closet at a library at MIT and attached a laptop to the library systems and downloaded these articles en masse.

Federal prosecutors argued that tapping into MIT's network that way was basically theft and they prosecuted him aggressively. The archive, however, JSTOR, never took legal action against him and asked prosecutors to drop the case. MIT did not.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess we should be clear here. He wasn't taking private information. He was, however, taking articles that he should have paid for and did not. Ended up committing suicide here - so how are people responding?

HENN: Well, shortly after the news of Aaron Swartz's suicide became public, his family released a statement that was harshly critical of both federal prosecutors who brought the case against him and MIT. It said, quote, "Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It's the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."

The family said that decisions at the U.S. attorney's office in Massachusetts and MIT, quote, contributed to his death. But it bears mentioning that Aaron Swartz had battled depression for years, had written about it publicly. However, his family argued that Swartz felt backed into a corner by the federal case against him and the prosecutors were asking for up to 35 years in prison and $1 million fine.

His family also criticized MIT by saying it refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles.

INSKEEP: Steve Henn, let me just ask this. Was it likely that he actually could have faced 35 years in prison? Because sometimes, of course, prosecutors make demands because they're negotiating.

HENN: It's difficult to say. Similar charges in a different federal court circuit recently failed to stand up to appellate review. Now, that federal case isn't binding in Massachusetts, but it was clear that the prosecutors were trying to be very aggressive here. I don't know whether it was a negotiating position or not. But in the past few days, countless academics have been tweeting free links to their articles as a tribute to what Swartz said he was trying to accomplish.

Yesterday, the president of MIT launched an internal investigation into the university's role in all of this.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Steve Henn. Steve, thanks very much.

HENN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.