Not a seat sat empty on Saturday evening in the Great Hall at Cooper Union, where approximately 1,000 people gathered to remember Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist and programmer who pressed doggedly for the free flow of ideas.
Mr. Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, this month.
“I don’t want to talk too much about Aaron’s work,” said Glenn Otis Brown, the director of business development at Twitter, who had met Mr. Swartz when he was a teenager. “I want to talk about his heart, his personality, his soul and his sense of humor.”
Mr. Swartz was brilliant and unassuming, friends said. He was curious, austere and generous, a rational altruist and an internationalist. He built an A.T.M. at age 7. He once sang the Muppets theme song to a team he was leading at ThoughtWorks, where he was employed at the time of his death. He gave quirky gifts. He urged friends to “seek out people who push you, and not just support you,” his girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, said. He encouraged people to be brutally honest with themselves, she said, and believed “there’s a deep, deep shame in caring more about believing that you’re changing the world than actually changing the world.”
In Mr. Swartz’s will, he donated most of his wealth to the charity GiveWell.
But, of course, no one could speak about Mr. Swartz without mentioning his work — or the criminal charges that several said crippled him emotionally.
“We’re here because he did so much in his 26 years,” said Quinn Norton, a longtime friend, “despite a culture that says, ‘You have to be careful, be responsible, be differential, go through the proper channels.’ He rejected all that. He didn’t wait to start living. He understood that his curiosity was all the license he needed.”
Before his death, Mr. Swartz had been indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR documents at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prosecutors said he downloaded approximately 4.8 million scientific and literary documents. The charges, which included wire fraud and computer fraud, carry penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.
At the memorial service, friends, relatives and mentors harangued the prosecutors they said had bullied Mr. Swartz.
Ms. Stinebrickner-Kauffman said the prosecutor involved in the case “had no sense of proportion or justice.”
She added, “The U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts must be held accountable for its actions.” The crowd broke out in applause. “M.I.T. must ensure that it’s never complicit in another event like this,” she said, and the crowd clapped again. “All academic research from all time should be made public and free and open.”
Roy Singham, the founder and chairman of ThoughtWorks, railed against a justice system that “protects those who accumulate wealth and treats those like Aaron in a completely different fashion.”
“We must demand accountability for those who tormented Aaron,” he said. Not out of revenge; “that is not our motivation,” he continued. “But we understand that if we allow the climate of fear to exist, the damage that will be done is the next Aaron will not come. And that is a future we will not accept in our world.”