In Other News of the Weird – Free Culture Activist & Progressive Party Organizer Aaron Swartz Indicted for Stealing Science Documents

by Mike Wendy on July 19, 2011

In other news (in case you’ve been glued to your computer getting updates on the News of the World scandal), co-founder, once fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics, progressive organizer and “free culture” activist, Aaron Swartz, was indicted today for allegedly stealing more than 4 million scientific papers from an MIT computer.  For this he was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer, carrying a penalty of up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

According to this story, Swartz:

…allegedly broke into a computer wiring closet in a basement at MIT to access MIT’s network without authorization from a computer switch within that closet. The access allowed him to download materials from JSTOR, a non-profit archive of scientific journals and academic work.

Authorities allege Swartz hacked into the system to distribute JSTOR’s archives through file-sharing sites. The indictment also alleges that Swartz’s illegal downloads also impaired JSTOR’s computers and servers, depriving regular customers access to the archives.

In a statement issued by JSTOR, it noted:

“…[A] substantial portion of our publisher partners’ content was downloaded in an unauthorized fashion using the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our participating institutions.  The content taken was systematically downloaded using an approach designed to avoid detection by our monitoring systems…

“…We stopped this downloading activity, and the individual responsible, Mr. Swartz, was identified. We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed…”

Some of the content on the JSTOR system comes through paid subscriptions, some costing as much as $50,000.

As the story above further alludes to, Swartz’s advocacy for the “elimination of barriers to the distribution of information over the Internet, and for the widest public distribution of information in libraries” could have played some role in the alleged activity.

Though Swartz is said to have settled the matter privately, that didn’t stop prosecutors.  Said U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the indictment was justified because “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.”

People may remember Swartz’s Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which he co-founded) for supporting 95 progressive candidates last November – all who signed a pledge for Net Neutrality regulations.

That pledge read:

“I believe in protecting Net Neutrality – the First Amendment of the Internet. The open Internet is a vital engine for free speech, economic opportunity, and civic participation in the 21st century. I stand with millions of working families and small businesses against any attempt by big corporations to control the Internet and eliminate the Internet’s level playing field. In Congress, I’ll fight to protect Net Neutrality for the entire Internet – wired and wireless – and make sure big corporations aren’t allowed to take control of free speech online. Mark me down as a 21st century Internet champion!”

BTW – all 95 lost their bid in 2010.

Swartz and his family no doubt hope he has better luck.

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