Hundreds of friends and supporters of Aaron Swartz gathered at Cooper Union in Manhattan to pay tribute to the free-information activist and online prodigy who killed himself last week as he faced trial on hacking charges.
A hero to data-access advocates but a thief in the eyes of prosecutors, Swartz, 26, was found dead Jan. 11 in a suicide that has intensified debate over how authorities should treat hackers whose goal is to expand public knowledge, not make personal profits.
Friends remembered Swartz as a digital-age polymath and a crusader for the open exchange of information — an "Internet saint," in the words of Quinn Norton, a journalist who writes about hacker and online culture.
Doc Searls, 65, a columnist and advocate for making computer code publicly accessible, said he met Swartz when the tech prodigy was a teenager and noted that the two "were often generational bookends at conferences we went to."
"When we're young we think our cause is a sprint, and when we're middle-aged we thing is it's a marathon," Searls said. "But when we're old we think it's a relay race. And Aaron was the one you wanted to hand it off to."
A grandson of activist folk singer Pete Seeger, Kitama Jackson, read a note from his grandfather that said: "These modern times are filled with such contradictions that experts are not agreed on what the future of the human race will be. But we can agree today that it was a tragedy for this brilliant young man to be so threatened that he hanged himself."
Swartz hanged himself in his apartment a month before he was to go on trial in Boston. Federal prosecutors accused him of breaking into a computer wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010 and tapping into the university's computer network to get millions of paid-access scholarly articles, which he planned to make available for free.
Whatever he aimed to do with the data, "stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar," Boston U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said before Swartz' death.
But his family, admirers and some legal experts blasted the case as overreaching that drove Swartz to his death. His father, Robert Swartz, has said his son "was killed by the government."
The digital archive that holds the articles, JSTOR, has said it regretted being drawn into the criminal case and didn't pursue any claims against Swartz after he returned the data in 2011. Days before his death, the nonprofit JSTOR announced that it planned to make more than 4.5 million articles available for free.
Swartz had pleaded not guilty to some 13 felony charges. They carried the potential for decades in prison and enormous fines, though prosecutors have said they never intended to seek the maximum penalties.
A shaken Ortiz said this week she was "terribly upset about what happened," appearing near tears at one point as she spoke about the case. But she said her office handled it fairly and appropriately.
Swartz was a young teenager when he helped create RSS, technology for gathering updates from blogs, news sites and elsewhere on the Web. He later co-founded the social news site Reddit and Demand Progress, a group that campaigns against online censorship.
Memorial speaker Glenn Otis Brown, director of business development at Twitter, remembered the precocious 15 or 16-year-old he met while working as the executive director of Creative Commons, which provides a way for people to license their code or online work for public use.
Swartz' role there was to translate legal software-licensing agreements into computer-readable code — a job he peppered with humor, such as reframing the complex legal concepts as haikus. For example, "Public domain: Do what you feel like / Since the work is abandoned / the law doesn't care," or "If you touch this file / my lawyers will come kill you / so kindly refrain."
Brown recalled a blog post Swartz once wrote about spending 30 days offline: "I felt like I was in control of my life, instead of the other way around."