Yesterday, Aaron Swartz — who designed the RSS 1.0 specification and is a well-known Internet academic — was indicted in Boston on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, and a number of other infractions for allegedly breaking into a computer closet at MIT and illegally downloading millions of documents from JSTOR.
Swartz, now 24, is an Internet and open-government activist who was a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics. He has done things like this before. In 2009, he downloaded millions of documents from a government site called Pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), primarily because he and others thought it was wrong to charge citizens $0.08 per page to access public documents on a system that was archaic.
The months-long effort to break into MIT and JSTOR likely was also designed to draw attention, as the indictment suggests:
Although Harvard provided Swartz access to JSTOR’s services and archive as needed for his research, Swartz used MIT’s computer networks to steal well over 4,000,000 articles from JSTOR. Swartz was not affiliated with MIT as a student, faculty member, or employee or in any other manner
It’s tempting to think that he was using MIT access to prove a point as an activist — a way of demonstrating that anybody, no matter their affiliation with an academic institution, should have access to this information. However, according to the indictment, he repeatedly tried to conceal the fact that he was gaining unauthorized access to the MIT network, and persisted despite his computer being barred again and again. He allegedly changed to a different computer when his first became too well-known to network security. The indictment accuses him of using a program called “keepgrabbing.py” and of fleeing from police when spotted. He allegedly used fake email accounts and a Mailinator throwaway email address to cover his tracks.
That doesn’t sound to me like someone trying to make an ethical point.
Reactions from those involved smack of preparedness, as clearly this has been a simmering story that the indictment brought to a full boil. JSTOR issued a statement reading, in part:
Last fall and winter, JSTOR experienced a significant misuse of our database. . . . The content taken was systematically downloaded using an approach designed to avoid detection by our monitoring systems. The downloaded content included over 4 million articles, book reviews, and other content from our publisher partner’s academic journals and other publications. . . . We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed.
A statement from DemandProgress.org, Swartz’s organization, reads with forced naïveté, as if breaking into MIT and hacking into a computer service are equivalent to your everyday “downloading”:
As best as we can tell, he is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the Web. The government contends that downloading said articles is actually felony computer hacking and should be punished with time in prison.
“This makes no sense,” said Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal; “it’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
Apologists include John Wilbanks, a thinker I often respect but one who, in this instance, seems to be willing to overlook all the frankly bizarre allegations about going to MIT, hacking their network, and downloading documents when Harvard provided them all to Swartz as part of his employment there. His tweets on the topic miss some of these main points in the indictment:
Wilbanks tweet — JSTOR’s mission: “to help the scholarly community take advantage of advances in technology”. except for downloading and analyzing in bulk.
Yet JSTOR has a paid service for large-scale analysis, one that doesn’t require a user like Swartz at Harvard to go to another institution, hack into their network multiple times while evading security (both network and real), and downloading millions of articles without any clear indication of research intent. Swartz could have done this from his desk at Harvard.
Wilbanks tweet — Holy smokes. JSTOR should be open access, of course, but i hope this turns out to be a misunderstanding.
Why should JSTOR be open access? Open access isn’t free access, it’s access paid for upfront by authors. The JSTOR aggregation is a mixed bag from a business model perspective, and because the archive is so large, most of it is subscription-based content that publishers and/or JSTOR had to pay to digitize, has to pay to sustain and service, and so forth.
Swartz was released on $100,000 bond yesterday; his next court date isn’t until early September. We have to assume Swartz is innocent until proven guilty. Yet, this little brouhaha seems unlikely to prove any major ethical point, no matter the outcome. Is the point that the scholarly literature as hosted at JSTOR should be free to anyone? Is the point that MIT’s computer network should be available to anyone? Both are equally illogical. Was MIT chosen because of DSpace, the open access repository? Why hide your identity and run from police if the point was an ethical stand?
But that doesn’t mean that those impassioned advocates for free information and access won’t latch onto this as some sort of rough cause célèbre — a real reach, from what I can tell at this point. Who needs to hack MIT to hack JSTOR? Couldn’t Swartz just have gone to a Starbucks?
The storyline eludes me here. And that’s what’s so perplexing about Swartz’s alleged crimes.
We may yet hear more about the specifics. We’re likely to hear even more about the generalities.