Hactivist collective Anonymous briefly took over some of MIT's websites earlier this morning to protest against the role computer crime laws may have played in the death of Aaron Swartz.
Reddit co-founder and internet activist Swartz was found hanged in his apartment in New York on Friday, having taken his own life at the age of 26. He was under indictment for computer and wire fraud, facing fines and over 30 years jail time, and some are now blaming strict computer laws and the US justice system for his suicide.
Anonymous hackers posted their message in red on a black background, claiming that Swartz's prosecution was unjust and his actions were political activism, not criminal activities.
"Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government's prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for," the message read.
"The situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of US computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes and the highly-questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining. Aaron's act was undoubtedly political activism, it had tragic consequences."
Swartz was arrested two years ago after allegedly using a laptop stashed at MIT to access JSTOR, an archive of academic journals, with a custom Python script and downloading 4.8 million articles. JSTOR charges for the documents, meaning the value of the articles amounted to millions of dollars.
JSTOR wasn't interested in pressing charges, but the government proceeded with the indictment. Swartz's lawyer, Elliot Peters, was attempting to negotiate a plea bargain with prosecutors, but they remained insistent that he would have to spend time in prison.
Downloading the articles was part of Swartz's campaign for free information online; he had pulled a similar stunt in 2008, when he snatched a fifth of the US court documents stored online and made them freely available to anyone.
Although Swartz was suffering from depression, his family has attributed some of the blame for his death to his experiences of the criminal justice system. The Swartz family said in a statement that the US justice system is "rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach".
MIT has said that it will investigate how it handled the network breach and its role in Swartz's prosecution. The Anonymous hackers were careful to say that they didn't blame MIT, even apologising for hijacking the university's websites.
Anonymous called on the government to see the tragedy as a basis to reform computer crime and intellectual property laws and commit to a "free and unfettered internet". ®