|Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz|
Some say that the little-watched criminal prosecution against the co-founder of Reddit.com, that was creeping toward trial in the United States District Court in Boston, may have precipitated the suicide. Statements from his family, on the other hand, acknowledged that Swartz long-suffered from bouts with depression.
The essence of the wire fraud and federal charges had Aaron, a "fellow" at Harvard University, using his access to the JSTOR database [a not-for-profit database of academic and scientific journals], and setting-up a "dummy" account on the MIT campus in Cambridge, to illegally download over 4-million documents which he presumably planned to make available to the public for free.
Mr. Swartz was a proponent of the notion that all information, regardless of source, should be available over the Internet for free. At the age of 14, he wrote the program that became known as "really simple syndication", or RSS. More recently, he was the owner of a company that merged to become the content-streaming upstart, Reddit.com.
The two named "victims" in the indictment, JSTOR and MIT, treated the case differently. For its part, JSTOR communicated to the U.S. Attorney that it did not want to see the case against Swartz prosecuted. MIT, on the other hand, despite its overall digital philosophy of open data sharing and "hands-off" data policing, did request that Swartz be prosecuted. That's all the U.S. Attorney needed to hear.
Swartz had acquired a reputation with the feds as a highly-skilled hacker. Back in 2009, the FBI investigated Swartz, but could not prove that he hacked into, then downloaded over $1 million dollars worth of public court documents from the pay-walled court record system known as PACER.
Perhaps the feds had the need for revenge in recommending the issuance of the two-count indictment against Swartz last year. The aggressive prosecution of Swartz has now been characterized in hindsight as federal "bullying". In his blawg Simple Justice, Gotham's Scott Greenfield had this to say about it:
Aaron Swartz was just today's victim of government overreaching and abusive prosecution, largely undistinguishable from the multitudes who came before him. But you don't know about them, as they weren't 14-year-old RSS code writers. So you didn't notice. You didn't care. They didn't exist to you, even as they faced 50 year sentences just like Swartz.
Well, we here at the Law Blogger say, RIP young Aaron Swartz. And we do hope that information of all stripes continues to be accessible on the Internet and, that most of it is free to the public.