The web mourned the loss of internet folk hero Aaron Swartz this weekend, but some members of internet hacking group Anonymous took their pain out on MIT’s website. Swartz was a programmer and online activist, who recently took his own life while facing charges over thirty-five years in prison for allegedly mass downloading nearly five million documents from online journal database JSTOR. It is thought that Swartz wanted to liberate the data as a radical contribution to the open access movement.
While JSTOR settled its civil question regarding in July, 2011, MIT is accused by many of Swartz’s supporters of being complicit in the harsh prosecution tactics used in his case. In a statement shortly after his death, Swartz’s family wrote:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
MIT released a statement on Swartz Sunday expressing sorrow for his death and announcing an investigation to “describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.” The statement was obviously not enough to appease some members of Anonymous who took down the site for part of the night using a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS), making it inaccessible to the internet at large, but not stealing personal information or otherwise damaging the network.
Elsewhere on the web, academics made another kind of tribute focused on building up rather than taking down: They started uploading their research to share in honor of Swartz.