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The Daily Need

Internet activist charged with hacking into MIT network

Aaron Swartz at the Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009. Photo: Sage Ross/Flickr

On Tuesday, Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old Internet activist and co-developer of RSS and a company purchased by Reddit, was charged with breaking into MIT’s restricted networks and stealing more than four million articles from the JSTOR academic database. According to the indictment, which reads like a crime thriller involving a secret wire closet, data mining programs and the odd bicycle helmet mask, the means by which he accessed and downloaded those articles constituted high cybercrimes worthy of federal prosecution. Yet many of Swartz’s supporters, who share his passion for free access to data and open government à la WikiLeaks, see the charges as being overblown.

Swartz reached an agreement with the nonprofit company JSTOR in early 2011 and returned the 4.8 million academic articles to the company, so there is no dispute about whether he downloaded the data from more than 1,000 scholarly journals that covered a wide range of subjects. JSTOR acknowledged that Swartz’s actions did violate its terms and conditions, but said they did not jeopardize the company’s relationships with publishers from whom it licenses. Rather, when a jury convenes for the trial, slated to begin September 9, what they will be deliberating is whether Swartz’s actions constituted federal cybercrimes that warrant a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines, as the statutes define.

Swartz faces six charges in the indictment, filed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston, including wire and computer fraud, and charges related to breaking into a protected computer. The case falls under federal jurisdiction because the alleged crimes were committed via the Internet and JSTOR’s servers were located in another state. The wire fraud charge alone, which is based on the assertion that Swartz misrepresented himself in “wire communications in interstate commerce writings” over the Internet, carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The FBI previously investigated Swartz for allegedly downloading and posting almost 20 million court documents from the government-run PACER system in September 2008, but did not file charges.

Given Swartz’s involvement with open information advocacy sites Change Congress and Demand Progress, his perceived motives could make a big difference in the trial. Based on statements from Demand Progress and writings in Swartz’s own blog, his actions may be positioned as a Robin Hood effort meant to make important information accessible to the public. It’s not clear if he intended to share the JSTOR data with the wider public or if he simply wanted it for the research that he was conducting as a Harvard University research fellow. It will be up to a jury to decide how much that matters.

Some have speculated that Swartz tried to circumvent the service’s restricted access — Harvard pays $50,000 a year for JSTOR — to provide the information to the public free of charge. But Heather McGregor, JSTOR’s vice-president of marketing and communications, quickly tried to dispel the notion that the database’s fees were prohibitive by underscoring the company’s sliding-scale fee structure. “JSTOR has always been about giving access to as many people as possible,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Harvard pays the most that any institution would pay. Community colleges, secondary schools, liberal arts colleges — everybody pays fees that are much lower than that.”

David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, downplayed the charges facing Swartz in a released statement by comparing the unauthorized downloading to checking out too many library books. Segal went on to say that “Aaron’s career has focused on serving the public interest by promoting ethics, open government and democratic politics.”

Like many of today’s Internet entrepreneurs, Swartz is something of a computer prodigy. He helped to develop the popular RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed system at 14 and founded a site called Infogami, which later became part of the content-rating system Reddit, now owned by Condé Nast Publications. He was in the middle of a fellowship at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, in its Lab on Institutional Corruption, which has now been suspended. The lab researches aspects of institutional corruption including topics like, “what psychological factors predict whether whistleblowers will be praised or rejected.” Harvard did not respond to an interview request.

Although Swartz was working at Harvard, he chose to access the articles at MIT, where he has been a guest lecturer. MIT declined to comment on the case. Although JSTOR has made it clear that it was satisfied with its previous resolution with Swartz, the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to proceed with federal charges.

“We make independent decisions on prosecutions,” said Christina Sterling, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Boston. She would not comment on whether the files that Swartz downloaded were the same ones he published in an exhaustive review of legal articles last year, which supporters say would favor the argument that they were intended for academic use. She said that more would be revealed during the trial.

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