I was scanning the list of New York Times headlines last night when I came across one that read, “Link by Link: ‘Free Culture’ Advocate May Pay High Price.” At first, I thought maybe the Godfather of [Digital] Free Culture, Stanford law professor, Lawrence Lessig, made some sort of concession in the ever-continuing debate on Internet regulation. But, as it turned out the article was about a 24-year old named Aaron Swartz who was arrested last week in Boston. The indictment alleges that Swartz tampered with MIT’s computers to gain access to Jstor, a non-profit, online subscription-based warehouse of peer-reviewed journals, and wrote a program to download basically everything in their collection. Jstor archives articles from a fairly large list of scientific journals dating back quite a few years, depending on what you’re searching for. Users pay a subscription-fee to access the articles, and that fee is especially hefty if you are, say, a library. While Swartz didn’t sell the articles, it’s unclear whether he had already made them freely available via file sharing networks, or was planning to do so. Regardless, chances are pretty good that that is where they would have wound up if they didn’t already.
It’s unclear why Swartz didn’t access Jstor from the Boston-area campus where he held a fellowship. While he was a former student of MIT, he was not a student or employee at the time. Who knows how long it would have taken to do all this in a less conspicuous, more legal manner. Because of the amount of data being transferred to Swartz’s computer as a result of this program, it crashed some of Jstor’s servers. He now faces felony charges of wire and computer fraud, among other things under the umbrella of “tampering.” Charges that could earn him 35 years in prison and fines of up to a million dollars. That’s far more jail time than Anders Behring Breivik (the Norwegian bomber/shooter) is looking at.
The prosecution calls it out and out theft. “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,” said US Attorney Carmen Ortiz. Swartz wasn’t sitting at a computer downloading shitty pop songs. He went for a database of academic and scientific reports that are normally available only to those that pay the exorbitant fee for an account. Free Culture advocates would point out here the restriction on access to vital information (though if you’re lucky enough to find what you’re looking for in print, you could go through that cumbersome process to get what you need).
Hacking and more legal forms of programming have become the tool of activists (see also the related Times article about the recent FBI raid on Anonymous after the group temporarily disabled Pay Pal’s website after the company froze donations going to Wiki Leaks. These are battles driven by the basic tenants of the Internet. Of Democracy, in fact. That is, the drive for transparency and both access to critical information and the ability to share it. And Swartz has a known for that kind of activism (shame on Times for vilifying him with the label “agitator”). I met Aaron when he was just a shy, moppish 18-year old participant of a Free Culture conference hosted by American University’s Center for Social Media. Social awkwardness aside, he was already a technical prodigy and something of a celebrity in the world of open source and shared information. And he’s kept plenty busy since, including authoring law review articles, creating websites, founding non-profits, and writing code (including those that became RSS and Reddit). All of it is this push to make essential information such as government and scientific data something that is accessible and sharable.
Swartz’s hard drives were turned over to Jstor, who recognized this issue, as well, but may have made empty promises about making access more affordable, and when questioned about what action they wanted to see taken against Swartz, a representative said that they weren’t sure why the Department of Justice was still pursuing the matter. MIT, however, may still be involved. Perhaps the arrest isn’t surprising, in terms of Meddling With the Primal Forces of Nature, and those forces are not only concerned about protecting profits, but also information. My guess is that the federal government may fear that at some point, they will have another Wiki Leaks-type of “fiasco” on their hands. They’ve been keeping tabs on Swartz since he was 17 (he posted excerpts from his FBI file on his blog in 2009).