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Aaron Swartz Indicted for Downloading Scholarly Journal Articles

I don’t have the pleasure of knowing Aaron Swartz, though I hear great things about him. So I was sad to see the government extend its war on secrecy by arresting Aaron yesterday and charging him with data theft.

Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old programmer and online political activist, has been indicted in Boston on charges that he stole more than four million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers […]

In a press release, Ms. Ortiz’s office said that Mr. Swartz broke into a restricted area of M.I.T. and entered a computer wiring closet. Mr. Swartz apparently then accessed the M.I.T. computer network and took millions of documents from JSTOR.

Mr. Swartz, a well-known figure in Internet academic circles, created a site called Infogami that later merged with the social news site Reddit. He is also a founder and director of the nonprofit group Demand Progress, which calls itself a political action group hoping to change public policy that relates to the Internet.

JSTOR apparently found out about Swartz’ downloading and made arrangements with him previously, settling the claim, and they did not favor indictment. They even said that they suffered no damages as a result of Swartz’ actions. Swartz has a right to access JSTOR articles for free by virtue of his Harvard research associations. The executive director of Demand Progress, David Segal, characterized it as “like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

Swartz has previously, through the Open Library project, downloaded millions of government documents on the grounds that they should be free and open to the public. That’s clearly what he was doing here, to make JSTOR information more accessible. There’s really nothing here that amounts to stealing, unless you believe that information should be locked up.

Demand Progress has a petition for Aaron. Given that JSTOR isn’t pressing charges and asked the government not to prosecute, this looks like garden-variety harassment and payback for breaking government secrecy ever so much in the past.

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David Dayen

David Dayen