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Swartz, guilty as charged?

Backspin By , Network World
July 22, 2011 10:13 AM ET
Gibbs

Network World - 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.

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