Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Aftermath. Grounds For Change.


Aaron Swartz’s criminal prosecution for violating the terms of service of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s JSTOR data base has caused two bills to be introduced in Congress.

One called Aaron’s Law would eliminate criminal charges arising out of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the wire fraud act.  Thus preventing the U.S. Attorney from making what was essentially a breach of contract civil case into a criminal case as they did in Aaron’s prosecution. Further to criminalize a just moral belief is indefensible.

Also Swartz’s criminal complaint was exaggerated by adding multiple counts each with its own jail penalty. This method was used by the prosecutor to bully Aaron in to pleading guilty to a crime he believed he did not commit by filing multiple draconian charges with long sentences to force him to plead to a lesser included offense which he refused to do.

In this case the multiple felonies filed under the aforementioned acts carried possible penalties of 35 years in jail and a million dollar fine. The lesser plea bargain was a felony plea and six months in jail. This is a frequent prosecutorial tactic not just in federal criminal cases but also in state cases.

By this method of overreaching and overcharging to force a plea bargain by the prosecution Swartz would have been deprived of a fair hearing on the merits of his case and having it ruled on accordingly.

MIT did not want this matter to be filed on by the U.S. Attorney’s office obviously because of the fact they were also  morally unjustified in not making JSTOR’s data base open to the public who had paid for the research in the first place. However they had the legal right to charge people off campus and limit downloading to people on campus because the existing copyright laws have been manipulated to expire long after the creation of the research papers most of which in this case were paid, as said, with tax payer money.

The copyright law which was first enacted to encourage the creation and dissemination of information after a brief period to allow the creator to be paid for their work has now morphed into a property rights wall that lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator.  This gives the creator no incentive to create anything new and once he or she is dead he or she obviously will create no more. Thus we have unproductive people living off the works of the dead creator.

Aaron Swartz believed in the Open Source Movement that would limit the time information and creations could be locked up behind corporate copyright walls which MIT was doing with its JSTOR data base which included research papers from the 1940’s.

The second bill, Fair Access to Science Technology and Research Act would mandate earlier access to publicly funded research. (The other Aaron’s law.) It will address this problem but it is unlikely to pass because there are too many powerful interests with an army of lobbyists who want to lengthen copyrights and patents for their own benefit.

Death is always a sad subject and suicide is even sadder.  An unnecessary death of a  young, gifted, idealistic person is the worst of all.   However perhaps this case will change public perceptions and bring about a resolution that benefits society in general.

The House of Representatives Oversight Committee has announced it will look into the prosecutorial tactics used in the Swartz case to determine if there was any abuse. This may result in legislation also to prevent the prosecution tactics Aaron Swartz was faced with.



Aaron Swartz and Google: Who Gets A Pass? Who Doesn’t?

                                                                                    AARON SWARTZ

Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted, criminally, for downloading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s data base of research papers which were available free on its Wi-Fi network on campus to everyone not just faculty and students.  However off campus MIT charges a subscription fee and on campus it limits downloads to one paper at a time. There was no illegal entry into the data base by Swartz he just downloaded them on campus to a computer hidden in a closet and then uploaded them onto the internet.  Allegedly MIT had no interest in proceeding against Swartz criminally or civilly but someone must have made a complaint.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint alleging: Wire Fraud, Computer Fraud, Unauthorized Access and Computer Damage. These charges could conceivably bring a felony conviction and a long jail sentence.  The plea bargain he was offered was six months in jail and a plea of guilty to a felony along with probation.

However Swartz committed suicide by hanging before the case was resolved.  The reason for the suicide is open to conjecture obviously the criminal case and the take it or leave it plea bargain to a felony and six months in jail plus probation would have been depressing to Swartz.

He was an idealist who was interested in systems that would benefit mankind even if he didn’t profit by them.  He already had participated in the development of RSS (Real Simple Syndication) and Reddit.  He was seen as a computer genius by the computer intellectual community but chose not to work at a for profit company.  Besides the charges he had other factors that could be a cause of his depression and its consequences including ulcerative colitis a condition that is not life threatening and treatable in most cases.

Pleading guilty to a computer related felony could have serious consequences for Aaron Swartz if he continued his activities on the internet like the MIT situation which he saw as non criminal and as making available information that the public had already paid for through government grants to the researchers.  A second similar conviction could bring a longer jail sentence if he took the felony plea and light sentence in this case.

Google on the other hand was never criminally prosecuted in this country by the U.S Justice Department or elsewhere for its Street View program of photographing houses and buildings and making them searchable on the internet. It also collected information like e-mail addresses, e-mail content, passwords and web browsing histories from unprotected Wi-Fi networks as it collected the photographic data. Google first denied it had collected such data and then was forced to reveal it had but alleged it was accidental and when discovered it deleted the data.  Whether Google has deleted the data is open to argument.  Also in order to collect the data Google had an experienced engineer specifically write a software program to accomplish the end result.  Yet it continues to say it was all an accident. How much money it made from the collected data is unknown and there was a strong profit motive here making it likely the wire tap was intentional.

Google was sued civilly by thirty states through their Attorneys General and in numerous foreign countries. Germany even considered a criminal action.  In the U.S. the civil settlement was about $7 million.

Google’s gross profit was $7.37 billion for 2012. A share of its stock trades at over $830.00. Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, its founders and manager are all billionaires.

When Aaron Swartz does a lesser incursion into the privacy of MIT it becomes a felony criminal offense but when Google steals the private data of millions it is a civil offense and one subject to a small fine, really a cost of doing business, and Google is free to continue invading the public’s privacy for profit which it has done serially in the past and when caught is able to buy out with small civil penalties. (Search Google Settlements.)  One wonders what kind of information it gives its lawyers and lobbyists regarding our state and federal legislators, executives and prosecutors in their dealings.

The Justice Department should take a hard-nosed look at what Google is doing and has done in the past and act accordingly.

In the case of people like Aaron Swartz, a civil case with a proportional fine would have been adequate. It was not necessary for the prosecutor in Boston to have Aaron’s scalp hanging from his belt.

The prosecution can be unnecessarily punitive on the low hanging fruit but timid against giant offenders with the resources to defend themselves and for whom they might want to work in the future.

Let’s see them take on Google and hang tough. Offer the culpable executive in charge a plea bargain similar to Aaron Swartz’s.