'This was not serious computer hacking'
By the time SOPA and PIPA were shot down last year, Swartz had become entangled in another legal thicket surrounding free access to online data.
According to federal prosecutors, Swartz used MIT's computer networks to download more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, in 2010 and 2011. He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud and other crimes, even though JSTOR declined to prosecute and urged the government to drop the case.
"What Aaron was accused of by the government (was) essentially a serious form of computer hacking," said Soghoian. If found guilty, Swartz could have been sentenced to up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine.
Soghoian was one of many observers surprised at the severity of the charges.
"These are the kinds of things you'd assume the government would use in a serious hacking case -- identity theft, millions of credit card numbers stolen, hacking into protected government databases or corporate networks," he said. "Aaron was accused of downloading too many articles from a website that anyone connected to the MIT network could log into.
"This was not serious computer hacking and the government didn't appear to differentiate between those kinds of activities."
Prosecutors saw it differently. When Swartz was indicted in July 2011, U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said, "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."
In the wake of Swartz's death, critics have been quick to cast blame. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, an outspoken writer on Internet issues, titled a blog post "Prosecutor as bully."
"From the beginning the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way," he wrote. "Somehow, we need to get beyond the 'I'm right so I'm right to nuke you' ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame."
Swartz's family was equally pointed.
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death," they said in a statement.
Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, declined to comment to CNN on Swartz's case, citing respect for his family.
Soghoian, the ACLU's analyst, said he sees Swartz's death as a great loss. Swartz could have made a fortune as a start-up wizard or venture capitalist but instead he plowed what money he made into his activism, he said.
"Aaron is seen as a hero. He spent a lot of time working to make the Internet a more open place," Soghoian said. "We lost a really important person who changed the Internet in a positive way, and we all lose out by his departure."