Wasted Potential

Aaron Swartz wan an open source advocate, helped write RSS and was a co founder of the site Reddit.  He released a “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” in 2008 that called for resistance against academic papers and other information being held behind paywalls. (Schwartz 2011) Practicing what he preached got him in trouble.  Later that year he used a Python script to download over 20 million documents from PACER, an archive of federal judicial records.  Though what he did wasn’t illegal, which the FBI determined after an investigation, it did earn him the attention of federal authorities.   Swartz later filed a FOIA request for his FBI file, after it was granted he posted the contents of the file on his blog. (Amsden 2013)  In 2010 Swartz used similar scripts to download academic papers from the JSTOR archive using a laptop he hardwired to MIT’s network in an unlocked utility closet.  These downloads slowed and even overloaded some JSTOR servers causing JSTOR to shut down access from MIT.  Though the articles were free, access to JSTOR is not.  These downloads caused MIT to contact federal authorities and though Swartz turned over hardrives with the articles to JSTOR, federal prosecutors pursued felony charges and Swartz was faced with up to 35 years in prison.  (Amsden 2013) None of the plea deals offered offered by prosecutors carried anything less than felony charges and prison time, faced with this and battling depression Swartz ended his life January 11 2013.

The threat of nearly life in prison is a heavy weight for anyone to bear.  Though what he did is not on par with more violent crimes, the punishment is more severe than even that for murder.  Many believe he could have beaten the charges.  The network at MIT is extremely open, and agreements between MIT and JSTOR assured that this type of access was available.  Had either MIT or JSTOR wanted to limit the number of downloads a simple CAPTCHA could have been used, which makes it near impossible for scripts to continuously grab downloads.  The supposed hack that took place was using a guest account and hardwiring the laptop to an MIT terminal.  There was no firewall or password cracking or other security breach.  The network allowed for unlimited downloads and rather than sit there and manually access them Swartz wrote a script that essentially did the same thing. (Stamos 2013) The only real charges that should have stuck were unauthorized access to the utility closet, trespassing, which oddly enough did not appear in the federal indictment.

After getting away scott free with the PACER downloads and seemingly taunting the FBI posting his file on his blog it seems the authorities had it in for Swartz.  Also it seemed to serve as an example for other would be hackers.  If a millionaire, genius developer couldn’t beat these trumped up charges what chance would an average person have.  This dogged pursuit of a mass downloader seems to be part of what drove Swartz to suicide.

It seems to me that the government does not have it’s priorities in order.  It isn’t like Swartz was stealing credit card or bank info, or siphoning financial transactions.  He was downloading massive amounts of free information and posting it online without a paywall.  There was no money making scheme behind it.  The documents on question, both archived in PACER and JSTOR were partially funded by tax dollars.  Swartz was giving the public access to documents that their tax dollars helped pay to create.  It speaks to the ridiculousness of IP law in this country that people who didn’t author these documents were receiving money to access them.  The whole spirit behind IP law is that the creator can profit from their works, not some 3rd party aggregator.  It is mindboggling that Swartz was facing 35 years for stealing free information.  Sure accessing the utility closet may have been illegal but so are all those MP3s you have.


Amsden, David. 2013. The Brilliant Life and Tragic Death of Aaron Swartz. Rolling Stone.
Retrieved from http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/the-brilliant-life-and-tragic-death-of-aaron-swartz-20130215

Schwartz, John. 2011. Open-Access Avodcate Arrested for Huge Download. New York Times.
Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/us/20compute.html

Stamos, Alex. 2013. The Truth About Aaron Swartz’s “Crime”.
Retrieved from http://unhandled.com/2013/01/12/the-truth-about-aaron-swartzs-crime/




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s