Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[FORUM] What do you think of the case of Aaron Swartz?

The events leading to the death of computer programmer an activist Aaron Swartz were succinctly described in an obituary in The Economist.

Small, dark, cluttered places were important in the life of Aaron Swartz. His days were spent hunched in his bedroom over his MacBook Pro, his short-sighted eyes nearly grazing the screen (why, he asked himself, weren’t laptop screens at eye level?), in a litter of snaking cables and hard drives. In the heady days of 2005 when he was developing Reddit, now the web’s most popular bulletin board, he and his three co-founders shared a house in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he slept in a cupboard. And it was in a cupboard—an unlocked wiring cupboard, where a homeless man kept stuff—that in November 2010 he surreptitiously placed a laptop, hidden under a box, and plugged it directly into the computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His aim was to download as many pages as possible from an archive of academic journals called JSTOR, which was available by paid subscription only to libraries and institutions. That was morally wrong, he thought; the knowledge contained in it (often obtained with public funding, after all) had to be made available, free, to everyone. And it was absurdly simple to do that. He already had access to the library network; no need to hack into the system. He just ran a script, called keepgrabbing.py, which liberated 4.8m articles at almost dangerous speed. MIT tried to block him, but time after time he outwitted them; and then, as a last resort, he plugged in the laptop in the cupboard.

[. . .]

The JSTOR business, however, got him into deep trouble. When he went back to the cupboard for his laptop, police arrested him. He was charged on 13 counts, including wire fraud and theft of information, and was to go on trial in the spring, facing up to 35 years of jail. The charges, brought by a federal prosecutor, were hugely disproportionate to what he had done; MIT and JSTOR had both settled with him, and JSTOR, as if chastened by him, had even opened some of its public-domain archive. But theft was theft, said the prosecution.

There has been quite a lot of anger directed at the people and agencies charged with responsibility for Swartz's suicide: JSTOR a bit, MIT more, the federal prosecutors most of all. Essays condemning Swartz' prosecution as unfounded in law and representing a fundamental wrong with the American justice system. Essays like the ones written by Wired's Ryan Single in his "Aaron Swartz and the Two Faces of Power" or The Atlantic's Clive Crook in "The Death of Aaron Swartz" are typical.

I don't agree with them. Orin Kerr's two-part analysis of the case (1, 2) at the Volokh Conspiracy seems fair-minded. According to American law, Swartz does seem to have acted knowingly to commit a criminal act, and it doesn't seem as if the prosecutors came down especially hard on him. One case could be made that the computer laws should be changed, another that American prosecutorial practices should be less hard-core, but Swartz wasn't singled out for victimization. Swartz's actions in undermining the potential economic viability of JSTOR's model, resting on its expertise in digitizing and organizing very large amounts of data, also strike me as short-sighted and not the sort of thing that would help information be free. (If information can be free.)

What say you?
Tags: crime, forums, information, internet, libraries, popular culture
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