Swartz, guilty as charged?

Aaron Swartz, founder of progressive action group Demand Progress, has been a bad boy, but how bad?

On Tuesday this week I got a message from an organization I admire, Demand Progress, a nonprofit that fights for a variety of progressive causes. Demand Progress has rallied the masses over many important causes, not least of which has been to oppose the horrendous "Protect IP" Act (see "New bill resurrects website eviction powers").

The message's subject was "Urgent -- Aaron was just arrested," and the first line read, "Shocking news: Moments ago former Demand Progress Executive Director Aaron Swartz was indicted by the US government. As best as we can tell, he is 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."

BACKGROUND: Internet activist charged with hacking into MIT network

So, "Who is Aaron Swartz?" you may be asking. Well, you, my IT friend, most likely know of the RSS protocol; Swartz co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification at age 14. Swartz was also an early employee of Reddit when he and his company were acquired by Reddit in 2005.

Swartz has since been a member of the W3C's RDF Core Working Group, co-designed the formatting language Markdown, created watchdog.net, a nonprofit site for mining government data, led the development of the nonprofit Open Library, and, among his many other achievements, wrote a somewhat famous analysis of Wikipedia, titled "Who Writes Wikipedia?"

In short, now, at the advanced age of 24, Swartz is way too clever, has done way too much, and makes the rest of us look kind of lazy. In other words, he's totally irritating.

Anyway, the message contained a link to a page on the Demand Progress website featuring quotes from a number of big name news sources, such as the Boston Globe, The Huffington Post and The New York Times, arguing in favor of Swartz. That page, in turn, links to a petition that, as of Thursday, July 21, has reportedly collected some 45,000 signatures.

According to the Web page, James Jacobs, the government documents librarian at Stanford University, where Swartz did undergraduate work, said: "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."

Of course this sounded completely outrageous but there was an obvious lack of detail, so I contacted the chaps at Demand Progress. They sent me a slightly more detailed press release but that still failed to tell the whole story.

What happened was that Swartz, in effect, hacked into MIT's network to access something called JSTOR. JSTOR, founded in 1995, is a U.S. nonprofit organization that "provides an online system for archiving and providing access to academic journals. It provides searchable digitized copies of over 1,000 academic journals, dating back for lengthy periods of time."

JSTOR charges universities and other organizations quite heftily for access to its archives, which go back to the 1700s. Bodies such as MIT make the content available to faculty and students on a limited basis, and anything other than personal use is prohibited.

To cut to the chase, here's what the accusations are all about, according to the indictment handed down by the Massachusetts Grand Jury:

"Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to ... break into a restricted computer wiring closet at MIT ... access MIT's network without authorization from a switch within that closet ... connect to JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through MIT's computer network ... use this access to download a major portion of JSTOR's archive onto his computers and computer hard drives ... avoid MIT's and JSTOR's efforts to prevent this massive copying, measures which were directed at users generally and at Swartz's illicit conduct specifically; and ... elude detection and identification ... all with the purpose of distributing a significant proportion of JSTOR's archive through one or more file-sharing sites."

Swartz is being accused of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer (he caused the JSTOR computers to crash due to the load he placed on them). Wow.

This all happened while Swartz was a fellow at -- and I'm not making this up -- Harvard's Center for Ethics! The indictment continues, "He used MIT's computer networks to steal well over 4,000,000 articles from JSTOR. Swartz was not affiliated with MIT as a student, faculty member, or employee or in any other manner other than his and MIT's common location in Cambridge."

At this point you might be wondering what Swartz was up to. According to the indictment, and presumably following the old digital hippie dictum of "information wants to be free," Swartz planned to "liberate" the documents: "Swartz intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through one or more file-sharing sites."

Because Swartz is accused of felonies, he could, in theory, go to jail for 35 years! If he'd killed someone he might be looking at five to 10, but when there are computers and money involved ...

Public sympathy seems to be with Swartz because the mainstream media, not surprisingly, haven't made much, if any, attempt to delve into the intricacies of the case, and Swartz's own creation, Demand Progress, is willfully promoting a hugely and disingenuously simplified version of the truth that completely ignores his actions and paints him as a victim. Even James Jacobs' quote (above) seems like it could easily have been taken out of context.

I find all of this disappointing because obviously Swartz did something wrong, and to characterize it as him being persecuted by The Government is simply manipulative and damages Demand Progress' credibility.

So, what should be done with Swartz? His contributions to society are unarguable yet his actions were, at the very least, unethical and, according to the indictment, criminal.

Sure, if he had published the documents JSTOR would have suffered a financial loss and that has to be figured in to the penalties, but then again, no one got hurt, nothing was actually lost, and no damage was done (other than a few computers that got borked, which wasn't a permanent issue). Sure, a little service time was lost and some staff time wasted but that was surely worth only a few thousand dollars.

Should this go to trial and should the court find him guilty I would hope they would, at worst, sentence him to pay for costs and the minimal damages involved and then give him a mountain of community service to fulfill. But alas, I will be neither judge nor jury. What say you, my learned readers?

Gibbs courts your opinion in Ventura, Calif. File your briefs to backspin@gibbs.com.

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