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

March 12, 2013 by
Filed under: Aaron Swartz, Criminal Prosecutions, Google, Hacking, Internet, Privacy 

                                                                                    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.



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