Federal copyright persecution leads RSS co-author and anti-SOPA activist Aaron Swartz to kill himself

by Stephan Kinsella on January 12, 2013

This is very sad. As noted previously on Techdirt:

Not much has been said about the Aaron Swartz case over the past year as the wheels of “justice” slowly grind their way to an eventual court date. Swartz, the executive director of Demand Progress, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a catch-all designation for “computer activity the US government doesn’t like.”

Swartz had accessed MIT’s computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he “stole” several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it’s pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of “theft.”

Not only that, but JSTOR was not the entity pressing charges. It had stopped the downloading and secured the “stolen” content, along with receiving assurances from Swartz that the files would not be distributed. Despite this, the feds felt compelled to arrest Swartz and charge him with four felony counts (one each for Wire Fraud, Computer Fraud, Theft of Information from a Computer and Recklessly Damaging a Computer). At this point, Swartz was looking at a possible 35-year sentence and over $1,000,000 in fines.

Whoever’s pushing this case must really dislike Swartz and/or his activities. A “Superseding Indictment” (pdf) has been filed, raising the number of felony counts from four to thirteen. [US Government Ups Felony Count In JSTOR/Aaron Swartz Case From Four To Thirteen; see also The Lack Of A Legal Or Moral Basis For The Aaron Swartz Indictment Is Quite Troubling]

And now, sadly, Swartz has committed suicide:

Computer activist Aaron H. Swartz committed suicide in New York City yesterday, Jan. 11, according to his uncle, Michael Wolf, in a comment to The Tech. Swartz was 26.

“The tragic and heartbreaking information you received is, regrettably, true,” confirmed Swartz’ attorney, Elliot R. Peters of Kecker and Van Nest, in an email to The Tech.

Swartz was indicted in July 2011 by a federal grand jury for allegedly mass downloading documents from the JSTOR online journal archive with the intent to distribute them. He subsequently moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he then worked for Avaaz Foundation, a nonprofit “global web movement to bring people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere.” Swartz appeared in court on Sept. 24, 2012 and pleaded not guilty.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard’s Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded DemandProgress.org, a “campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA.”

This heroic guy’s life was no doubt left in shambles by the criminal state’s persecution of him based on these ridiculous copyright charges, and it apparently led him to take his life. So sad.

See also Tim Lee’s Feds go overboard in prosecuting information activist (Tim Lee is not against copyright; the problem is not the feds going “overboard” but copyright per se; get with the abolitionist program, Lee), Lessig’s Prosecutor as Bully, and Glenn Greenwald’s The inspiring heroism of Aaron Swartz. Also  Declan McCullagh’s comments:

This is terribly sad news: Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York City on Friday, according to this MIT Tech article:
http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N61/swartz.html

Aaron was facing possible life in prison because he allegedly tried to make journal articles public. The Justice Department’s indictment accuses Aaron of connecting his computer to MIT’s network (without authorization — he was at Harvard, not MIT) and sucking down over 1 million already published academic journal articles from the JSTOR database, which the professors and other authors who wrote them probably would have liked to be free to the public anyway. Here’s the indictment:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/60362456/Aaron-Swartz-indictment

Aaron’s scraper wasn’t that well-programmed, and it’s true that he allegedly did this without authorization from MIT. But he downloaded no confidential data from JSTOR — again, these are academic journal articles — and released no data at all. Because Harvard had a JSTOR subscription, Aaron actually had the right to download any of the JSTOR articles for his own use (but not to redistribute or perform a bulk download). Demand Progress compared it to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

If JSTOR was upset, this seems like the type of wrong that could have been remedied through civil litigation. But JSTOR decided against it, with its general counsel Nancy Kopans telling the New York Times that “we are not pursuing further action” against Aaron:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/20/us/20compute.html?_r=0

The especially sad thing is that JSTOR announced this week that it is now making “more than 4.5 million articles” available to the public at no cost:
http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2013/01/academic-libraries/many-jstor-journal-archives-now-free-to-public/

BTW, Aaron helped to create RSS, founded Demand Progress, which was active on the anti-SOPA front, and sold Infogami to Reddit (now part of Conde Nast):
http://news.cnet.com/8301-31921_3-20128166-281/copyright-bill-controversy-grows-as-rhetoric-sharpens/

Perhaps Aaron should have been punished for trespassing, which he did do if the DOJ has its facts right. But last fall the Feds instead slapped him with a superseding indictment featuring 13 felony counts that would mean a worst-case scenario of $4M in fines and possible life in prison (I think we can safely say that 50+ years in prison for someone in their late 20s is life):
http://ia700504.us.archive.org/29/items/gov.uscourts.mad.137971/gov.uscourts.mad.137971.53.0.pdf
http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20120917/17393320412/us-government-ups-felony-count-jstoraaron-swartz-case-four-to-thirteen.shtml

I’d be shocked if Congress ever intended for computer crime law to be used this way; I wonder what Lanny Breuer, the head of the DOJ’s criminal division, would say if asked about it the next time he testifies on Capitol Hill. Perhaps Breuer would say this case is a model of restraint: after all, Aaron wasn’t charged with violating the No Electronic Theft Act, which would have added yet another set of felony charges! Paging Harvey Silverglate…
http://www.harveysilverglate.com/Books/ThreeFeloniesaDay.aspx

I never met Aaron, and don’t know what led him to this point. Perhaps it was unrelated to the criminal charges. But it’s very sad news, and I can’t help thinking that the possibility of life behind bars, because of alleged bulk downloading that many Americans might be surprised even qualifies as a crime, led to Aaron’s decision to commit suicide. His criminal trial was scheduled to begin in two months.

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