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Cambridge Activist Charged in Document Theft

The indictment reads like a techno-thriller. Covert entry into an MIT network closet to hide a laptop and secretly download data. Cat and mouse games with network security staff trying to find the intruder. Caught by the police and indicted by the Federal government for his alleged crimes. But Aaron Swartz, Cambridge resident and activist, is not charged with accessing military or corporate secrets. Instead, he's charged with stealing 4,000,000 published research papers that he could have legally downloaded from his office. And for that, he might spend 35 years in jail and pay a fine of $1 million.

Swartz is well known for his many contributions to the web. In 2001, at the age of 14, Swartz was a co-author of the specification for RSS (Really Simple Syndication), a core technology that provides the ability for one web site to display a stream of articles from another web site. He was involved in the early development of reddit, a social news aggregation web site that is core the geek online culture. He was involved early in the development of the Creative Commons licensing paradigm, which provides simple, standardized alternatives to the “all rights reserved” paradigm of traditional copyright to maximize digital creativity, sharing, and innovation. He was the founding project lead of Open Library, an effort to create a openly shareable web page for every book. Until Harvard became aware of the criminal investigation of which he was a target, Swartz was a Fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University which was founded by lawyer, activist and scholar Lawrence Lessig.

Most recently, Swartz founded Demand Progress, a group whose mission is to win progressive policy changes through organizing, lobbying, and elections. Demand Progress has run campaigns focused on intellectual property law and copyright enforcement. Most recently it has been working against an agreement forged by major internet providers and copyright holders to shut down internet access for individuals who have been repeatedly accused of illegally downloading materials. Lauded by the White House as important new protections for the creative industries, this agreement has been severely criticized by activists for bypassing the criminal justice system, and creating a regime where, once accused, one would have to pay a fee in order file an appeal.

It was with this background of accomplishments that the 24 year old Swartz, according to the indictment filed against him, entered a restricted MIT networking closet, plugged in and concealed a laptop computer, and started to download items from JSTOR, an online system that provides access to academic journals for a fee. Over the course of a few months, Swartz, it's alleged, downloaded 4 million items from JSTOR. As the download rate was, according to the indictment, interfering with JSTOR's service, first JSTOR, then MIT, attempted to find the source of the rogue downloading. As part of its protective measures, JSTOR starting blocking small portions of MIT's networks, increasing this finally to all of MIT During this time, Swartz, it is alleged, used a number of technical means to hide his computer from network security staff at MIT, bypass their countermeasures, and finally physically moved the computer to another location evade detection, concealing his face behind a bicycle helmet to avoid video surveillance. All the while, Swartz's Harvard affiliation provided access to the same JSTOR material through Harvard's Library.

Reaction to the indictment was fast and furious. Demand Progress issued a statement that said: "He's being charged with allegedly downloading too many journal articles from the Web. The government contends that downloading so many journal articles constitutes felony computer hacking and should be punished with time in prison. We disagree." A Stanford University librarian is quoted as saying "Aaron's prosecution undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles. It's incredible that the government would try to lock someone up for allegedly looking up articles at a library." Lawrence Lessig weighed in saying that if the allegations about Swartz's actions were true they were ethically wrong, but was not sure they constituted a crime.

If those fervent statements don't ring true when placed against the allegations of breaking into a network closet, it is important to note that Swartz is charged neither with breaking and entering nor criminal trespass. The federal indictment, instead, charges Swartz with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, including Wire Fraud, Computer Fraud, Unlawfully Obtaining From a Protected Computer, and Recklessly Damaging a Protected Computer. These are computer hacking statutes whose intended targets are those who break into computer systems to gain access to, for example, credit cards, with which they plan to commit financial fraud. Swartz's alleged crimes are more like the illegal downloading of music. In those cases, copyright holders pursue monetary damages through civil court proceedings. Criminal charges are exceedingly rare. JSTOR, who would be the injured party and would pursue civil remedies has said in a press release that the documents Swartz download have been "returned" and the consider the matter closed.

Activist and lawyers are left to speculate why the Department of Justice chose to pursue such a harsh course. The press release from the US Attorney's OFfice in Boston quotes United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz as saying, “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." As Swartz's fellow activists point out, it's difficult to construe accessing documents to which you are entitled as "stealing".

Swartz was arraigned on July 19th and entered a plea of not guilty and released on $100,000 bail. His next court appearance is scheduled for September 20th.

Photo of Aaron Swartz in 2006 copyright Jacob Applebaum, licensed under Creative Commons, via Flickr

Aaron Swartz Indictment