Just because it should be free, doesn’t mean you can steal it

Aaron Swartz’s arrest reveals the limits of open access ‘hacktivism’
Photo by Chris Devers c/o Flickr Creative Commons

Aaron Swartz was arrested last week after allegedly breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s computer network to play Robin Hood—stealing academic journals from the ivory tower and making them available for free online. The 24-year-old online activist and then-fellow at Harvard now stands accused of fraud. The prosecution, led by U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz, alleges that between September 24, 2010 and January 6, 2011, Swartz repeatedly broke into M.I.T.’s restricted computer wiring closet, accessed the network using an anonymous email address (at one time shielding his face with a bicycle helmet to hide his identity from security), and illegally hacked his way into the school’s JSTOR account to download 4.8 million articles. At one point near the end of his heist, according to the indictment, Swartz fled M.I.T. security officials attempting to question him.

Swartz, an early contributor to reddit and the co-founder of Demand Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization specializing in online campaigns for progressive causes, including protecting internet freedom and protesting the Patriot Act, may have disclosed a possible motivation behind his alleged actions three years ago. In his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” released in 2008, he rallied against what he saw as the private monopoly of public culture:

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.”

Open access ‘hacktivists’ like Swartz argue that academic journals constitute open data that should be freely available for the benefit of public knowledge. As Matt Blaze, a computer scientist at Princeton University, puts it, expecting authors to release their intellectual property to copyright is “quaintly out of touch with the needs of researchers and academics who no longer expect the delay and expense of seeking out printed copies of far flung documents.” The New York Times even lauded Swartz for a similar hack in 2009, when he and “a small group of dedicated open-government activists teamed up to push the court records system into the 21st century,” by downloading and releasing to the public over 19 million pages of court documents from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, described as “cumbersome, arcane and not free.” While government officials were beside themselves, Swartz and his crew had broken no laws.

Matt Ingram of finds Swartz’s recent indictment disturbing, and argues that what the online activist did was no worse than when Mark Zuckerberg downloaded photos from Harvard’s network to create the beta version of Facebook. “It’s certainly nowhere near the kind of espionage that the government is alleging occurred in the case of WikiLeaks and the diplomatic cables it published, or the hacking that groups such as Anonymous and Lulzsec are accused of being involved in. What could possibly [be] gained by going after a young programmer for trying to liberate academic research from a library?” In a statement, Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal said that Swartz’s indictment was “like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

But in reading the indictment, “liberating academic research” is not the charge he is facing. The four counts leveled against Swartz are for wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. Timothy B. Lee of also notes that M.I.T. students’ access to JSTOR was cut off for several days following the Mission Impossible-inspired data breach, no doubt providing students much-needed fodder for the old “hacker ate my homework” excuse. Like the comedian who threw a pie at Rupert Murdoch and succeeded only in victimizing a man who was doing just fine making himself look bad, such actions make JSTOR “look like an injured, even magnanimous, party and gives them an excuse to make their policies more restrictive.”

Swartz wasn’t arrested for reading under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime. He faces allegations of deliberately breaking into someone else’s bedroom and re-wiring the lighting completely before even getting under the covers, all while wearing a mask. While the purpose of distributing JSTOR’s content for free on file-sharing sites may seem bizarre grounds for federal charges, fraud and trespassing aren’t.

Whether Swartz should be facing felony counts that could bring him up to 35 years in prison for actions, which while perhaps brazen and illegal, harmed no one, is another question altogether—JSTOR is not pursuing legal action against him and say they have no interest in doing so because the articles have been re-secured (although plenty of documents have already appeared online). However misguided such methods may be, it seems unfair to punish someone so severely for wanting to help the general public access a science journal, which would normally be available only to an elite group of graduate students.