Society and Culture, Media and Technology

Aaron Swartz: A tragic suicide, but his ‘hacktivism’ actually hurt the goals he claimed to promote

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup in August, 2009. Image Credit: Sage Ross (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Aaron Swartz at a Boston Wiki Meetup in August, 2009. Image Credit: Sage Ross (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If the allegations were true, Aaron Swartz was guilty of breaking and entering into the premises of MIT, which, as a premier science and engineering university, has immensely valuable confidential intellectual property on campus. He then created a false user account to tap into MIT’s information systems with the goal of stealing JSTOR’s scholarly articles database and posting to it free filesharing sites. If Swartz, who downloaded 4.8 million documents before he was caught, had succeeded in making JSTOR’s database public, he could have put it out of business and its employees out of work. Nor would MIT’s eminence last long if anyone with the right hacking skills could freely make off with the work of its researchers.

Swartz — ironically a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics — didn’t care about the damage, arguing in an online manifesto, “[S]haring isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.” He exemplified New York Times media reporter David Carr’s observation, “It is an article of faith among the digitally inclined that only losers pay for – or try to charge for – content. . . . But here’s the problem with religion, even the digitally charged variety: it provides succor, but not sustenance. ”

It costs money to develop and deliver intellectual property, and JSTOR’s massive and ever-expanding database — widely accessible to academic researchers through universities and to the general public through public libraries — benefits society. JSTOR needs to scan and clean up documents, run database servers, and pay its staff — one current project is to digitize 26,000 19th century UK pamphlets, a key historical source that had been virtually inaccessible. A subscription model is one of the few ways to pay for this. JSTOR keeps its fees fairly modest, with particular attention to affordability by public libraries, secondary schools, and developing nations, and is now making limited content available free.

Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig — one of Swartz’s staunchest defenders — nonetheless makes readers pay for e-reader versions of his books on Amazon. And Swartz himself saw fit to take money for intellectual property when he sold his startup, Infogami, to Reddit.

Despite heated denunciations of the potential 35-year prison sentence and $1 million penalty for Swartz’ alleged violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, it does not appear that prosecutors overcharged him for accessing a computer system without authorization. Since, under US double jeopardy law, they only get one opportunity to try someone criminally, the initial charge always includes the kitchen sink.

Prosecutors indicated that they would only seek a seven year term at trial, and offered Swartz a six- to eight-month sentence if he pled guilty (with the possibility of serving some of it in a halfway house). This was a more than reasonable plea deal for someone trying to destroy a research database organization of worldwide importance — even if some people think hacktivists are cool.

18 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz: A tragic suicide, but his ‘hacktivism’ actually hurt the goals he claimed to promote

  1. I don’t think it justifies wrecking the system, but I have some very serious complaints about how JSTOR manages access to its system. It blandly assumes that anyone interested in a scholarly article MUST be affiliated with a university, or live next door to a major public research library.

    When I received my Ph.D. years ago, President Bok welcomed me and my fellow recipients “to the community of scholars everywhere.” Apparently, ‘everywhere’ doesn’t include anywhere beyond the confines of academe. There is simply no provision for anyone with academic interests–even with the best of academic credentials–to keep up to date with scholarly research, let alone to pursue it oneself. Yet this institution-centered orientation is becoming increasingly anachronistic in a world where budget-strapped universities are cutting back on their faculties, reducing budgets for research in any but the most practical (that’s spelled ‘TECHNOLOGICAL’) disciplines, while access to public research libraries is becoming more and more difficult, with fewer of them keeping ever-shorter hours.

    Most of the great contributions to knowledge before the twentieth century were made by ‘amateur’ scholars, without university affiliations. In our own age, Jonathan Sumption is writing the definitive history of the Hundred Years’ War while continuing his active practice as a barrister. A recent recipient of the Fields Medal had no university affiliation whatsoever. Academic institutions cannot blithely assume a continued monopoly upon serious thought which is not only of recent origin, but appears as if it may already be headed for obsolescence.

    I, for one, was delighted to hear that someone had figured out how to hack into JSTOR. I would be glad to pay a reasonable fee for its use, but I cannot afford to reincorporate as a university library.

  2. The entire ‘IP’ scam is created by government to confer monopoly privileges that the markets would never give. My Swartz made the principled argument. The government and its enablers continued to make their Mickey Mouse arguments in the hope that the public would continue to believe. But the game is nearly over and the time of monopoly privileges is coming to an end. That is a good thing because it lowers the standard of living and stifles creativity.

  3. I did a quick check at their fee structure before writing the blog post, and JSTOR does have moderate-priced fee structures for public libraries. Many public libraries now offer remote access to databases — which may be a way of taking care of the short hours problem you correctly note. Knowledge is definitely moving beyond the university, as you observe, but somebody’s still got to pay for the infrastructure.

    • I did a quick check at their fee structure before writing the blog post, and JSTOR does have moderate-priced fee structures for public libraries. Many public libraries now offer remote access to databases — which may be a way of taking care of the short hours problem you correctly note. Knowledge is definitely moving beyond the university, as you observe, but somebody’s still got to pay for the infrastructure.

      The government has already used the taxpayer to pay for the research. Most of JUSTOR’s fees come from the taxpayer courtesy of library and university fees. So I do not see where the problem is. It is not as if downloading an article removes it from the view of others. It simply makes a copy for the individual who cares to look at it. Nobody else is cheated by one user making a copy.

      • You’re right about the “one copy” issue. JSTOR isn’t going to care about one copy — it’s analogous to the copyright fair use doctrine. But sucking up the whole database & posting it on bittorrent is different.

        • You’re right about the “one copy” issue. JSTOR isn’t going to care about one copy — it’s analogous to the copyright fair use doctrine. But sucking up the whole database & posting it on bittorrent is different.

          Is it? JSTOR still gets its money from the taxpayer funded libraries and universities. The fact that more people can have access to papers on which scientists get no royalties and are based on research already paid by the government is not real theft because the monopoly privileges cannot be justified by any logical argument. Note that IP law used to be called monopoly law and the last time I checked artificial monopolies were not good for society or individuals.

    • Yes, and the New York Public Library avails itself of it. All I have to do to consult an article is to commute about an hour into New York, where they are kind enough to recognize my degree as justifying access to their research facilities (this is not automatic!), spend about another half-hour dealing with the library’s procedures, and, once I’ve read the article and made notes on it, commute back home. The local public libraries do not have JSTOR, and I happen to be privileged enough to live near New York City. What I would do if I lived in some more isolated location I cannot imagine. Nor do I think that greater access would reduce the author’s royalties, as there probably aren’t any. As I said, I’m willing to pay something for the service. But I could not justify expenses remotely like those they charge libraries, even if they were to make the service available to individuals on that basis.

      • I haven’t worked through their complete library fee structure, but for Very Small libraries (which they define on their site) seeking access to their science literature database, the initial capital charge is $750, with an annual charge of $500. So while it’s definitely important to expand access as much as possible, they do appear to be making a real effort to adjust their charges to make them affordable to institutions at various levels.

        • It does help. I’ll try again to explain how cheap that is to the Glen Ridge, Montclair, and Bloomfield Public Libraries, but they have cost pressures of their own, and I am not part of a very large group in this immediate vicinity. In any case, that still doesn’t explain why anyone with a University ID can log in from home, and an individual, willing to pay a fee, cannot. If I could log in as a loyal alumnus, that would also serve my needs, but I cannot. Nor will the local universities (Columbia, Rutgers, et al.) recognize my doctorate as entitling me to reciprocal privileges, not even library use in situ. I could, for a relatively nominal fee as an alumnus, obtain library privileges at Harvard, but, alas, Widener is 230 miles and four hours away by car; I get up there about once every two years. It’s a question of making scholarly research more widely available, and I can’t see what the harm is in doing so.

    • The anonymous source’s report — that the real bottom line was a 7 year sentence if trial, 6-8 months if Swartz plea bargained — seems plausible. Swartz had well-placed friends, psychological problems, no previous convictions and didn’t succeed in damaging JSTOR’s business. It’s not likely that a judge would have gone for the maximum 35 years and $1 million fine even if the case went to trial and the government won on all counts. Such a sentence might not even be permissible under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

      The defense lawyer, whose job was to make the best case for Swartz, had every interest in playing up the 35 year/$1 million maximum in order to build public sympathy for his client. The government, too, may have had an interest in playing this up to discourage other hacktivists.

      • The defense lawyer, whose job was to make the best case for Swartz, had every interest in playing up the 35 year/$1 million maximum in order to build public sympathy for his client. The government, too, may have had an interest in playing this up to discourage other hacktivists.

        The government is entirely to blame. It keeps granting monopoly privileges and it prosecutes individuals who did not steal anything.

      • You shouldn’t expect proportionality or fairness from the U.S. court system in matters of IP, when the players are throwing so much cash into pressuring lawmakers and other players. Or expect it in general, which is why the U.S. leads the planet in incarceration. We are discussing a shameful system here.

        For the prosecutors to even talk about multi-year sentences for a case like Swartz’s, is a sign of the system’s madness. JSTOR wasn’t wanting to prosecute. The Secret Service Computer Boy Scout Division pushed this ‘canary in a coal mine’ case way too far—a ridiculously heavy-handed act of state repression.

        Facing a hopeless, brutish system with no respect for individuals, Aaron saw only a pointless life ahead, trapped in concrete, and made the only decision—that he could see—to avoid it.

        I think this is way beyond a discussion of IP and into the very idea that the only way to handle things is incarceration. Most people incarcerated in the US are paying a painful price that is totally out of proportion to the original offense.

        From society’s point of view, the negative blowback from the rage boiling inside the largest state incarceration program in the world is more important to deal with. Prison doesn’t make people better people.

        Other countries deal with the legitimate need for social protection of society at large from genuinely dangerous people far differently. We should stop talking from a perspective that what happens in America, how we do things, is normal and fair. It is not. It is shameful and self-harming as a society.

  4. This is a revolting post. If AEI is in favor of free enterprise and property rights, then it should realize that copyright is utterly incompatible with property rights and should be abolished. It is evil, and thought control. That this writer says a totally innocent person should be locked up in a cage by the evil, criminal, central state, for almost a year, is pathetic.

    • If AEI is in favor of free enterprise and property rights…

      It should be clear that AEI is not in favour of free enterprise and property rights because most of its positions are statist in nature. Its primary concern is not liberty but who gets to benefit from running big government. The commentators here know very little about the subject that they comment on. They are simply interested in political narratives that advance their own ideology.

    • Totally innocent? How do you figure? He agreed to terms of use and then stole millions of documents. When he was caught he created a fake account and continued to stgeal documents. He event went so far as to break into a communication closet and tapped into the network. Totally innocent?

      • Absolutely. He did not steal anything because the service still had all of the papers and there was no reduction in royalties for the academics who wrote the papers. (They do not get any.) Mr. Kinsella is right. The man was innocent and the government prosecutor was guilty of abuse of power.

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