Aaron Swartz’s suicide puts access-to-information crimes under the microscope

The Right Click

The news this week of young technology pioneer Aaron Swartz’s death has hit hard for many people. From those who mourn the loss of one of the co-founders of Reddit to those who mourn the changes Swartz could have made to how and when we can access information, the tech world and the world at large has lost a modern pioneer.

Swartz, 26, will be remembered for helping to create RSS when he was 14 years old, as well as co-founding the social news website Infogami, which would later merge with Reddit and become the popular website so many of us while away the hours on every day. He also helped to develop Creative Commons, which is used to make information and media more widely available to the public.

Swartz charged for downloading, hacking

Sadly, one of the other events in Swartz’s life that he will be remembered for is the one now being blamed for contributing to his suicide. Swartz was embroiled in a legal battle over documents that he downloaded over MIT’s wireless network. According to a federal indictment quoted in Forbes, Swartz was charged with hacking JSTOR, the database of academic journals and articles only available to students of institutions like MIT from “a restricted computer wiring closet in the basement of MIT to download millions of articles from academic journals.”

In layman’s terms, Swartz was charged with downloading the articles illegally from JSTOR and hacking into MIT’s computer network, Swartz’s attorney Elliot Peters told The Associated Press.

[ Related: Anonymous hacks MIT websites over Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz's suicide ]

Swartz, who was a student at Harvard University at the time, did nothing with the articles he downloaded — whether he intended to sell them or give people access to them freely is unclear. But the U.S. government, the U.S. Attorney’s Cybercrime Unit and other U.S. legal bodies launched a court battle with Swartz on behalf of the alleged victims of his crime, JSTOR and MIT.

JSTOR issued a statement over the weekend, forgiving and absolving Swartz of any possible wrongdoing: “Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”

MIT eventually took a neutral position towards the Swartz case, not dropping the case against Swartz at the same time as JSTOR. As a result, MIT has come under criticism for their lack of action, and have been criticized by Swartz’s family.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” Swartz’s family wrote in a statement this past weekend, TIME reports. “It is the product of a criminal-justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

The cost of free information

With one plaintiff firmly taking a stand against legal action and another passively involved in the proceedings, there are now many fingers being pointed at the U.S. Attorney’s office for pursuing someone with life-altering sentences in a matter considered trivial by many. At the end of the trial that was set to begin this year, Swartz could have faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for his actions.

According to Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist and a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, the punishment Swartz was facing was more severe than the crime warranted, or what the plaintiffs wanted.

“These are the kinds of things you’d assume the government would use in a serious hacking case – identity theft, millions of credit card numbers stolen, hacking into protected government databases or corporate networks,” Soghoian told CNN. “Aaron was accused of downloading too many articles from a website that anyone connected to the MIT network could log into.

“This was not serious computer hacking and the government didn’t appear to differentiate between those kinds of activities.”

Federal prosecutors in Boston dismissed all charges against him following his death.

The future of information in the public domain

Swartz’s fight to make information available to the masses extended to another famous fight over copyright, the battle to stop SOPA and PIPA legislation from being passed in 2012. And the widespread uproar over his death will likely inspire others to continue the fight against widespread, overreaching copyright legislation from becoming law.

[ Related: Bill C-11 passes Commons, allowing for U.S.-style copyright law ]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which was also active in the fight against SOPA, is urging U.S. citizens to write to their congressional representatives or senators and ask that the laws be changed to prevent those stiff penalties from being levied against someone else in the future. As ZDNet reports, the EFF is seeking changes to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in the U.S. to better recognize designations of piracy and access to information, and to better recognize the severity of crimes.

What Swartz was seeking to do, through his projects like RSS, Creative Commons, Reddit, and likely the reason behind his mass downloading of articles from JSTOR, was to make information more available and accessible to everyone through the Web. The aim of groups like EFF is to ensure that work is continued, and that others who seek to remove boundaries to information are protected from legal ramifications.

To be clear, the kind of information that Swartz was interested in disseminating isn’t the same kind that Julian Assange and Wikileaks was promoting; while Wikileaks sought to distribute top secret U.S. documents, Swartz was interested in making news articles and academic articles readily available, and didn’t think that knowledge available to some should be blocked by financial barriers like paywalls or subscription fees.

In his interview with CNN, ACLU’s Soghoian mourned the loss of Swartz on behalf of all of us who seek to access information on the Internet:

“Aaron is seen as a hero. He spent a lot of time working to make the Internet a more open place. We lost a really important person who changed the Internet in a positive way, and we all lose out by his departure.”

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