Is MIT Partly to Blame for Suicide of Reddit’s Aaron Swartz?

After co-founder of Reddit Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his NYC apartment last week, a number of people, including Aaron’s parents, blamed the suicide on his legal troubles. Swartz was facing charges stemming from his download of 4.5 million articles from the JSTOR archive using Massachusetts Institute of Technology network credentials. If convicted, he could [...]

After co-founder of Reddit Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his NYC apartment last week, a number of people, including Aaron’s parents, blamed the suicide on his legal troubles. Swartz was facing charges stemming from his download of 4.5 million articles from the JSTOR archive using Massachusetts Institute of Technology network credentials.

If convicted, he could have served up to 35 years in jail and been forced to pay millions in restitution. Now that Swartz is gone, a growing number of people are saying that the prosecution was a textbook example of prosecutorial overreach and was a contributing cause to his suicide. The latest to voice these sentiments is Swartz’s last place of employment, a Chicago-based consultancy ThoughtWorks.

Earlier this week, ThoughtWorks released a statement calling Swartz’s death a “tragic injustice.” Painting a picture of an aggressively brilliant young man and social crusader, the company says that Swartz was loved by his colleagues but in the last months of his life became increasingly despondent over the possibility of three decades or more of prison time.

The statement goes on to say that MIT – which had allegedly tacitly aided in Swartz’ prosecution – and the prosecutors share the blame, and expresses support university’s recently announced internal investigation. In addition, the statement calls for a look into the prosecution’s case, claiming that the actions taking by Swartz did not warrant this kind of heavy-handed treatment. By writing this, the company appears to be backing the assertion that the prosecutors were looking to make an example out of Swartz.

“Aaron was the target of a vindictive government prosecution by the Department of Justice and a disproportionate reaction. The supposed victim, JSTOR (the archive from which Swartz stole the documents), clearly conveyed that it did not support the charges. MIT, however, did not join JSTOR, and so the U.S. Attorney continued the prosecution. ThoughtWorks also supports the growing calls for accountability for the prosecutorial abuse, directed by lead prosecutor Stephen Heymann under the supervision of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, that bullied Aaron.

We demand an investigation into the Department of Justice’s actions in this case.

Shortly after the release of the statement by Aaron’s parents blaming his death on MIT and the U.S. Justice Department, MIT President L. Rafael Reif announced that the university will look into the role it played in the prosecution and whether it provided material assistance to the U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.

JSTOR, from whose archive the articles had been downloaded, disavowed the prosecution, and chose to pursue no action in civil courts after Swartz agreed to return the articles he downloaded to the company.

In his short life, Swartz notched a number of impressive achievements. In addition to co-founding and doing some of the early programming for the popular aggregator Reddit, at the age of 14 he also participated in the drafting of the widely-used RSS internet syndication standards.

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