Aaron Swartz is an all-around genius. He co-authored the RSS specification when he was 14 years old, sold his blogging platform company to Reddit, and is now the director of non-profit political action committee Demand Progress. On Tuesday, he was charged with violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for allegedly breaking into an MIT network and downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR. If convicted, he faces up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million dollar fine.
JSTOR is a non-profit that catalogs academic articles and digitizes old academic journals. Access to JSTOR costs money, but is generally free for students to access. The materials in JSTOR are protected by copyright, but a significant amount of the research is funded through public dollars.
The indictment (PDF) details charges for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, recklessly damaging a protected computer, and aiding and abetting, and alleges that Swartz broke into a “restricted computer wiring closet at MIT,” spoofed his MAC address to evade network blocks, and used Python scripts to download these 4.8 million JSTOR articles.
The Guardian published an article titled “Academic publishers run a guarded knowledge economy” with some important discussion around locked-down academic articles being a “barrier to the public understanding of science and to ongoing scholarship by the people who’ve wandered away from institutional academia.”
Demand Progress’ executive director David Segal said in a statement, “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.” Following Swartz’ arrest, an activist uploaded 32GB of JSTOR articles to The Pirate Bay in protest.
A few years ago, Swartz also took advantage of a free-access program to PACER — the federal government’s Public Access to Court Electronic Records service — in public libraries by downloading a massive amount of court files that the U.S. Courts identified as being worth $1.5 million. But in that case, court records are open and public documents not subject to copyright. Swartz found out in a FOIA request that as a result of his PACER downloads, he was investigated by the FBI.
(This post was written before Aaron’s death.)