The Activist Who Downloaded Too Much

Indictment charges theft of millions of journal articles through MIT's JSTOR account.
July 20, 2011

A federal grand jury has indicted Aaron Swartz -- an activist and technology innovator -- for the theft of millions of journal articles through the JSTOR account of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The indictment describes Swartz's efforts to use an MIT guest account to download the papers, even though he didn't have the legal right to do so. He was at the time affiliated with Harvard University, through which he could have read the same journal articles. He could face a jail term of 35 years and fines of up to $1 million.

Swartz has been involved in numerous efforts to make more information available free to more people. But the charges he faces make no distinction between his possible philosophical goals and any other kind of theft. "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away," said a statement from U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz.

While Swartz could not be reached for comment, his many fans mobilized support online, charging that the government was essentially treating him as a criminal for violating the terms of service in place at MIT and with JSTOR members. More than 15,000 people signed petitions on his behalf within hours of the word of the charges he is facing.

The blog of Demand Progress -- a group Swartz previously led as executive director -- published a statement saying that "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."

David Segal, currently the executive director of the group, said: "lt’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library." Segal also said that Swartz has resolved his disputes with JSTOR, making legal action inappropriate.

JSTOR is a widely used service through which libraries obtain digital access to numerous journals. JSTOR released a statement indicating that it could not comment on the indictment but outlining what it knew about the case:

"Last fall and winter, JSTOR experienced a significant misuse of our database. A substantial portion of our publisher partners’ content was downloaded in an unauthorized fashion using the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our participating institutions. The content taken was systematically downloaded using an approach designed to avoid detection by our monitoring systems," the statement said. "The downloaded content included more than 4 million articles, book reviews, and other content from our publisher partners' academic journals and other publications; it did not include any personally identifying information about JSTOR users."

JSTOR "stopped this downloading activity, and the individual responsible, Mr. Swartz, was identified. 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," the JSTOR statement added.

The statement said that it was "important to note that we support and encourage the legitimate use of large sets of content from JSTOR for research purposes. We regularly provide scholars with access to content for this purpose." However, the statement added: "Even as we work to increase access, usage, and the impact of scholarship, we must also be responsible stewards of this content. We monitor usage to guard against unauthorized use of the material in JSTOR, which is how we became aware of this particular incident."


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