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Family, Friends Blame Government for Aaron Swartz's Suicide

Highland Park native and Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide at 26 last Friday, was tormented unfairly by the federal government, according to those who spoke at his funeral on Tuesday.

Highland Park native Aaron Swartz was remembered who inspired friends and family alike during a moving funeral service held at Central Avenue Synagogue on Tuesday.

The 26-year-old who committed suicide last Friday was also mourned as a victim of unfair treatment by the government. 

In the packed to capacity chapel, Swartz's academic mentors, his defense attorney and his father lamented the impending trial Swartz was preparing for that they believe contributed to his depression and led to his decision to hang himself in his New York apartment last week.

"Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government," said Robert Swartz, Aaron's father. "The hole he left us with will never be repaired."

Swartz co-created the social news website Reddit and founded Demand Progress, an organization devoted to Internet activism and fighting expanded government oversight of the Internet, according to CNN.

Considered a prodigy by his peers, parents and professors, Swartz created RSS, a now common web-publishing technology, when he was 14. 

"Parents were reading to their kids," Robert said about raising his son, "and Aaron was reading to us."

Swartz got into trouble with the federal government in 2011 when he was indicted for using MIT's computer networks to gain illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-based service that distributes literary and scientific journals. According to federal prosecutors, he then downloaded more than four million articles. Federal prosecutors charged Swartz with multiple counts of wire fraud, computer fraud, according to the Huffington Post.

Swartz's defense attorney Elliot Peters called the federal prosecutors who charged his client "stony-faced bureaucrats" during Tuesday's service.

"Aaron proved to be an opportunity to make a case – a federal case, a big case – something that functionaries could brag about in the cafeteria line for weeks, months to come," Peters said. "This was about them and their rules."

After the charges were filed, Swartz faced the threat of jail time, felony convictions and heft fines, according to his father, who compared his son's treatment to the "senseless absurdity of the situation" in Kafka's "The Trial." He compared his sons actions to those taken by tech celebrities when they were young. Apple's Steve Jobs sold blue boxes to criminally defraud phone companies, according to Robert. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg famously hacked into Harvard's computer system to create Facesmash while he was a student.

"These people were lionized and made immortal forever," Robert said. "How is it that Aaron did something that legally wasn’t illegal and he was destroyed by it…others did things that were worse, and they were treated as idols."

Robert wished that MIT had been more protective of his son during the government's investigation. 

"We tried and tried to get MIT to help and show some compassion," Swartz said. "They wouldn’t... dealing with them was one frustration after another."

Swartz's partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, called for the world of academia to change as a result of Swartz's death.

"MIT and Massachusetts need to change fundamentally," she said. "Aaron’s not alone as a victim of the criminal justice system... Aaron would like nothing more than to think that he could play a role in helping those people."

Since Swartz's death, federal prosecutors have dropped his charges, according to The LA Times. The paper reports that MIT is going to thoroughly analyze the school's involvement in Swartz's case.

But these decisions come too late for Swartz's father, who called his son "an explosion of light in a world that is dark without him."

"He could have done so much more, but now he is dead," Robert said. "There is no way to explain this."

Read more about Aaron Swartz here.

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