In addition to co-authoring the technology behind RSS, which alerts users to real-time updates on Web sites, Swartz also played an early role at Reddit, and founded the advocacy group Demand Progress. He believed that the articles on JSTOR should be more widely available, particularly as many were funded by public money. He hacked into the database’s systems and downloaded articles using a computer concealed in an MIT closet.
Once found, Swartz was charged with felony hacking charges, which could have carried a decades-long sentence. His trial was set to start this spring and his attempts to reach a plea-bargain with the government, the Wall Street Journal reported, had recently fallen apart.
In the messages Sunday, the group called for an overhaul of intellectual property and computer crime laws. The group also said Swartz’s death should be a rallying point for Internet freedom advocates. “We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered Internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all,” the group said.
In an update to the messages, which have since been taken down, the group said it does not blame MIT for Swartz’s death and apologized for using its sites as a stage for its messages.
The messages were posted shortly after MIT President Rafael Reif wrote a letter to students, alumni and other members of the school’s community to say that it would look into the role MIT played in Swartz’s case.
Tim Lee writes about Swartz’s impact on the tech world, and calls Swartz an “American hero:”
Swartz took an aggressive, perhaps even reckless, course in his promotion of public access to information. The federal courts lock public documents behind a paywall on a Web site called PACER. When the judiciary announced a pilot program to provide free PACER access to users at certain public libraries, Swartz saw an opportunity. Using credentials from one of the libraries, he used an automated program to rapidly “scrape” documents from the PACER site. He got more than 2 million before the courts noticed what was happening and shut down the libraries program.
Swartz used a similar tactic to liberate academic articles from the JSTOR database. He logged onto the network of MIT, which has a JSTOR subscription, and began rapidly downloading articles. When MIT cut off access to its wireless network, Swartz snuck into an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly into the campus network.