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Aaron Swartz, a free-information advocate, committed suicide as he faced the possibility of a long prison term.
FILE/Michael Francis McElroy/The New York Times
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BY ALLEN G. BREED
BOSTON--Since his suicide, friends and admirers have cast free-information activist Aaron Swartz as a martyred hero hounded to his death by the government he antagonized. One newspaper columnist--whose piece on Swartz was accompanied by a photo showing him at his computer, his head encircled by a golden halo--even compared him to an Internet-age Martin Luther King Jr.
But those closest to the 26-year-old Swartz say the hacker prodigy wasn't out to be a hero. Rather, he was a painfully shy young man who felt passionately that government and big business had hijacked the Web, and hoped to make a difference.
In the end, they say, Swartz failed to fully appreciate the threat he embodied to some.
"It was an act of personal risk," said James Grimmelmann, a professor at New York Law School who had known Swartz for six years. "I don't think he understood just how much the system would come down on him over it."
Swartz, a wunderkind who helped create Reddit and RSS, the technology behind blogs, podcasts and other Web-based subscription services, was found dead last week in his New York apartment.
Swartz's family and friends blame federal prosecutors for his suicide, saying they pursued him relentlessly in the years since he helped post millions of federal court documents for free online rather than the few cents per page charged by the government through its electronic archive. He was never indicted. But three years later, he was charged in Boston with using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer network to download nearly 5 million academic articles from an online clearinghouse for scholarly journals.
His lawyer, Elliot Peters, said prosecutors were insisting he plead guilty to all 13 felony charges and serve four to six months in prison or go to trial and face up to 35 years. Swartz rejected that offer, saying he didn't want to be branded a felon.