This is the question I’ve been mulling over the last few days, ever since the news of Aaron Swartz’s arrest. The name may sound familiar to you, as he has many Brandeis connections- I know someone who’s interned for him and another person who’s related to him. However, since I don’t know him myself, I feel completely comfortable trying to pass judgment on what he did.

Swartz was indicted on July 14th on federal charges of: wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, recklessly damaging a protected computer, aiding and abetting, and criminal forfeiture, in order to download 4.8 million articles from JSTOR through MIT accounts. The indictment was sealed until the 19th, and now appears online on the New York Times blog.

The debate over Swartz’s arrest started almost immediately after the first reports surfaced on the 19th, in large part due to Swartz’s role as something of a prodigy/legend to techies. Demand Progress came out in strong support of Swartz, creating an online petition for people to pledge to stand by Aaron Swartz, which garnered 15,000 signatures the first day it was launched and 35,000 the second day. Soon after, major news sources were covering it, and opinions were being spouted all over Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.

So, why all the controversy?

Aaron is the founder and Advisory Board Director of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group, creator of watchdog.net, a site to making government more transparent, Open Library, a open-source site to create a collection of book descriptions, and co-founder of Reddit, a social news site, for a start.

All of these projects target the world of privatized information, in an attempt to achieve transparency and accessibility in arenas where these terms are spouted but not often lived up to. Swartz was involved in a similar project in conjunction with Shireen Barday, for which he “downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding,” according to his website.

These findings were published in the Stanford Law Review.*In 2009, Swartz was involved in another project, that of downloading 19,856,180 court documents online through a free trial of the government’s Pacer computer program. When the government noticed the huge downloads, coordinated by Mr. Malamud, they suspended the free trial, without comment. However, Swartz’s work aroused the curiosity of the FBI, who launched an investigation into his activities, although ultimately no action was taken against him. Ironically, Swartz requested his FBI file and then posted it to his site.

However, this project is perhaps different from the Law Review one. Because while his criminal charges lend themselves to a productive discussion about transparency and the availability of information online (similar to another IMP post), they include allegations of concrete illegal activity employed in order to gain access to these documents. According to a NYT article,

Beginning in September of last year, according to the indictment, Mr. Swartz used several methods to grab articles, even breaking into a computer-wiring closet on the M.I.T. campus and setting up a laptop with a false identity on the school network for free JSTOR access…When retrieving the computer, he hid his face behind a bicycle helmet, peeking out through the ventilation holes.

Although most people I’ve spoken with find Swartz’s actions justifiable and sympathize with his plight, some are more critical of the situation. In response to Demand Progress’ allegation that arresting Swartz is like “putting someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”, one Brandeis alum said “It just makes me mad that they’re not being honest. He did what he did for good reasons…highlight that instead of whitewashing the truth.”

Another complaint is that his actions hurt MIT students using JSTOR. In the indictment, JSTOR alleges that the flood of downloads crashed some JSTOR servers, and in response, they suspended MIT’s access for several days while they investigated the matter.

So, while Swartz’s actions seem to have been for the greater good, and I support the work he is doing, the immediate effect of it were negative repercussions for students and faculty. I think continued media attention, and certainly the court case, should be focused more on what he did rather than why he did it, analyzing the legality and ethics of how he obtained the materials and JSTOR’s and MIT’s policies. This case will definitely pave the way for more fruitful discussions on the availability of information via the internet.

*Updated 7.25.11 to reflect additional information

One comment on “Information: How Free Is It? A discussion about Aaron Swartz”

  1. lara grey Says:

    Even though transparency is a virtuous aim, the “fruit of the forbidden tree” is thrown out of court since it is tainted. People must be responsible for how they do things, not just why.