March 7, 2021

Link by Link: ‘Free Culture’ Advocate May Pay High Price

That image came to mind with the case of Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old agitator for free access to information on the Internet who managed to download more than four million articles and reviews onto his laptop computers from a subscription-only digital storehouse. The material was from some of the most prestigious — and expensive — scientific and literary journals in the world.

Like the penny opportunist, Mr. Swartz was invited to sample the wares of the nonprofit online collection Jstor, and he interpreted that invitation quite expansively. Using a program that automatically paged through each issue of more than 1,300 journals, he was able to methodically download their contents, making a copy of almost everything in the collection.

Yet this episode is hardly a joke. Mr. Swartz was arrested last week in Boston on a series of felony counts including wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. If convicted on all counts, the Justice Department said he could face up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Mr. Swartz is not a run-of-the-mill hacking suspect. He has been known for his computer work since he was 14, when he was involved in developing the software behind RSS feeds, which distribute content over the Internet. At the time the investigation began, he was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, though he was later placed on leave.

Mr. Swartz did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. His lawyer would not comment other than to note that Mr. Swartz had pleaded not guilty to the indictment, which “puts everything in it in dispute.”

It should be emphasized, however, that Mr. Swartz was not trying to profit from his activities. He has been a fierce advocate of redistributing information, so much so that in 2008 he promoted a Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto (no longer available online) that said it was imperative to “take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.”

We are not talking about the latest X-Men movie or Lady Gaga album. Rather it is the research contained in specialized scientific journals with subscriptions that can cost thousands of dollars; institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars to Jstor. which stands for Journal Storage, for a subscription that bundles these publications online.

That money, Jstor says, is needed to collect and distribute the material and, at times, subsidize institutions that cannot afford it. Founded in 1995, Jstor started with 10 journals available to a few American universities and has since expanded to include about 325,000 journal issues available at more than 7,000 institutions.

His supporters question why the government has reacted so strongly. “This makes no sense,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, an organization Mr. Swartz founded to rally support online for an open Internet. “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

The government had its own interpretation of what Mr. Swartz did. “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” the United States attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, said last week in a statement about the case. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

In the government indictment, Mr. Swartz is described as becoming more and more devious in his downloading, signing on with a fake name as a visitor to the M.I.T. campus, and then, when detected, taking more serious steps. At one point, the government says, he tried to get access to the university’s network at a wiring closet, and in an attempt to evade security cameras “held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet.”

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