Aaron Swartz cost MIT some documents. Wall Street cost MIT billions. Guess who got indicted?

I never knew Aaron Swartz, though his photo looks familiar, and he’s worked for friends of mine.  And while suicide is always, I suspect, a complicated matter, when you bring the full force of the US government down on the head of a 26 year old kid, and he ends up killing himself, some questions need to be asked and answered by all parties involved.

So it’s good news that both the senior Republican and Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform have joined together in writing the Justice Department, seeking answers on its investigation of Aaron Swartz.

If you don’t know the back story, Wikipedia has a quick synposis:

On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by federal authorities in connection with systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR. Swartz opposed JSTOR’s practice of compensating publishers, rather than authors, out of the fees it charges for access to articles. Swartz contended that JSTOR’s fees were limiting public access to academic work that was being supported by public funding.

A few more salient points in this discussion, again via Wikipedia:

Shortly before Swartz’s death, JSTOR announced that it would make “more than 4.5 million articles” available to the public for free. The service was capped at three articles every two weeks, readable online only, with some downloadable for a fee.

Interestingly, that’s about the same number of documents Aaron is accused of stealing (“over 4 million,” DOJ alleged).  So there’s a serious question of no-harm-no-foul involved here, potentially.

And this:

U.S. Attorney Ortiz asserted after the 2011 indictment that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Okay a few points here:

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swart, via Creativecommoners on Flickr.

1. I’m not sure I like the idea of condoning anyone taking documents that people have for sale.  Yeah, you don’t agree that the documents are for sale, you think they should be free.  Okay.  But they are for sale, and it is stealing to take something that’s for sale and Robin-Hood it to the masses for free.  Having said that, I’m open to hearing more arguments about why this isn’t stealing.  And there’s still a question as to what the real monetary damage was of this “theft” anyway.

2. Even if it is stealing, this is hardly akin to robbing a bank, or a bank robbing the rest of us (see point 4, below).  Prosecutors and US Attorneys are busy people.  And anyone who’s ever worked on any crime issues knows that it can be living hell trying to get one to actually take up a case.  So the “stealing is stealing” argument is cute, but it’s also pure bs.  The US Attorney doesn’t take up a case just because it’s “stealing.”  They take up a case because they think it’s a huge matter, or because of political pressure, and I’m not really convinced that downloading these documents was a huge matter, but Aaron Swartz did tick some important people off.

3. I’d be curious if any real attempts were made by DOJ to negotiate a plea. This report from Swartz’ attorney, again via Wikipedia, is disturbing:

Swartz’s attorney, Marty Weinberg, has indicated that prosecutors told him, two days before Swartz’s death, that “Swartz would have to spend six months in prison and plead guilty to [all] 13 charges if he wanted to avoid going to trial.” He has also said that he “nearly negotiated a plea bargain in which Swartz would not serve any time,” but that bargain failed. “JSTOR signed off on it,” he said, “but MIT would not.”

Six months in prison is not a serious plea bargain on a case like this.  At Swartz’s age, with his looks, he’d be rape-bait in any prison.  That punishment hardly suits this crime.  And if it’s true that MIT refused to sign off on a plea bargain that didn’t involve Swartz serving prison time, then the US House should start sending some threatening letters to MIT as well.

4. In 2009, MIT’s endowment suffered a $1.7 billion “investment loss.”  And other articles suggest that in fact this nearly $2 billion loss is to be blamed on the economic crash of late 2008.  And who got jailed for that?

Just to make things crystal clear, when MIT lost nearly $2 billion in 2009 because of crooks on Wall Street, no one was indicted, and no one went to jail – instead, the government handed the thieves $700 billion of our money.

But when MIT lost a bunch of reports it was trying to sell, and then MIT gave the oh-so-valuable reports away for free anyway, the kid who forced them to give away the reports was quite possibly hounded to death.  And I’m going to go on a limb here and assume that MIT did not lose $2bn as a result of Aaron Swartz’s actions, or they wouldn’t be putting the reports out there for free.

Had Aaron Swartz stolen billions and declared himself a bank, he’d have been facing a government bailout rather than an indictment.  He’d also quite possibly be alive.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Google+. John Aravosis is the editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown (1989); and worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, and as a stringer for the Economist. Frequent TV pundit: O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline & Reliable Sources. Bio, .

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  • Amogh

    To put things in perspective, about how wrong things are, David Headley got sentenced to 35 years in jail for helping terrorists in killing 161 people in Mumbai, India and poor Aaron Schwartz faced almost the same (30 years) in jail for sharing knowledge.

  • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

    We need a national dialogue on the practice of piling on charges to coerce defendants into accepting unjust plea bargains.

    The prosecution was apparently in the business of annihilation. Swartz faced spiritual annihilation and financial annihilation, with no viable means of escape. To my mind, our justice system is out of control. The prosecution took leave of their senses. Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy is all too commonplace, and most of the time goes unreported.

    The suicide of Aaron Swartz in the face of the appalling over-reach of unchecked discretionary prosecutorial power highlights a much larger problem that pervades our legal system.

    The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner.

    Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

    In the field of Medicine, every proposed treatment or cure has to be carefully studied and reviewed to ensure that it has demonstrated therapeutic value, and does not inadvertently spread, exacerbate, or even cause the malady it sets out to treat. In the medical literature, a treatment is called “iatrogenic” if it is counter-productive to the primary objective of curing disease.

    The field of Law does not employ such safeguards, and as a result a substantial fraction of our public policies and practices, operating under the color of law, turn out to be iatrogenic — ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

    Alan Simpson, the retired Senator from Wyoming, spent some three decades in Congress, during which time he helped craft and enact a great deal of legislation. But after he retired, he remarked that during his tenure in Washington politics, he discovered a law, the way a scientist would discover a natural law. Simpson said he discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences, meaning that the actual outcome of legislation, passed in good faith with an expectation of curing one of society’s ills, frequently turned out to have unanticipated, unexpected, and undesirable consequences. In science, if one is relying on a theoretical model, and the actual outcome of an experiment does not jibe with that predicted by the model, one is obliged to discard the model as unreliable.

    Our governmental systems are rife with unreliable models which give rise to unwise practices, many of which are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. We have built governmental systems that lack viable safeguards against iatrogenic treatments of many of our most problematic social ills.

    Here is an example of the kind of scholarly article one might find on JSTOR (which recently relaxed it policies to make many more of them freely available without a costly institutional subscription).

    Punishment and Violence: Is the Criminal Law Based on One Huge Mistake? by James Gilligan, Harvard University; published in the Journal of Social Research, Fall 2000.

    http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/40971409?uid=3739696&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101594367703

  • andnow

    This is ridiculous I cant believe that they can charge people this much money

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    Go Anonomyous!

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    “Justice” is for the hyper wealthy and corporations.”—- strictly a commodity. Anyone dealing with the American legal system on any level quickly learns that ‘justice’ has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the money. Check out the term ‘testilying’ on Google and the paradigm is all laid out.

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, yet another blood thirsty representative of the American injustice system.

  • Badgerite

    If I were the family of Aaron Schwartz I would be looking into the possibility of a lawsuit of their own if for no other reason than to get to the bottom of what really occurred behind the scenes and what really motivated this case. The public explanation is ridiculous. There must be some cause of action. This was such prosecutorial overreach to the point of abuse of discretion.

  • Mark_in_MN

    Swartz’ actions whatever they might have been, weren’t theft. He didn’t deprive anyone of their property. He didn’t take the documents away from JSTOR, MIT, or anyone else. Had he redistributed them, without license from the copyright owners, he would have infringed on copyrights. But he did not, whatever his plans may or may not have been. Plus, its not clear who was harmed or deprived of income. Presumably JSTOR was paid for access from the MIT campus, and the publishers paid by JSTOR according to licensing agreements.

  • quax

    Based on the reporting I’ve seen Ortiz and JSTOR were the problem. The latter apparently twisted MIT’s arm and threatened to withdraw their institutional access unless MIT played hard-ball. Of course the fact that MIT went along with this blackmail shouldn’t be ignored either.

  • http://www.facebook.com/monoceros.forth Monoceros Forth

    How is Swartz’s action suppose to lose MIT money? The high cost of subscriptions to academic periodicals is bleeding university libraries to death. It’s possible however that MIT isn’t afraid of losing money but rather access to the journals. The big publishers have cut off access to universities before in punishment for excessive downloading.

  • Sweetie

    “After Swartz committed suicide, Ortiz acknowledged that, ‘There was no evidence against Mr. Swartz indicating that he committed his acts for personal gain’ and that his conduct ‘did not warrant the severe punishments authorized by Congress.’”

    How nice.

    His family released a statement: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

    The hacking group Anonymous also released a statement: ‘Two weeks ago today, a line was crossed. Two weeks ago today, Aaron Swartz was killed. Killed because he faced an impossible choice. Killed because he was forced into playing a game he could not win — a twisted and distorted perversion of justice — a game where the only winning move was not to play.”

  • Sweetie

    This article appears to be missing a very critical piece of context:

    “While Swartz had indeed compromised MIT’s network and the JSTOR database, the Middlesex County district court decided that he wouldn’t face jail time for his actions. The matter would have been closed, but United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz decided to take up the case.

    Ortiz then hit Swartz with 13 felony charges that could have sent him to jail for up to 35 years. Swartz would also be on the hook for a $1 million fine for his actions.”

    – via Dailytech

  • SkippyFlipjack

    JSTOR is an archive of academic materials. Anyone affiliated with a university has full free access. Schwartz was right, everyone should have access to that collection, and his actions brought publicity to the issue. Most people wouldn’t use the content he made available — they’d still rather get access to the real site where they could do full content searches.

  • hoary_nodens

    Duh, is anyone surprised.

    “Justice” is for the hyper wealthy and corporations. The purpose of the filthy masses is to consume, breed, pay taxes, and most of all, obey without question, always and unflinchingly. God Bless America!

  • condew

    Nice comparison. MIT loses $2,000,000,000.00 and it’s OK. They get embarrassed for their poor on-line security and they go for blood, and the Federal government was their full partner in both cases.

  • Indigo

    You know, others under indictment by los federales have suffered similar fates, hurtling to their demise out a basement window, drowning in dry creek beds and even, here in Florida, leaving not one but two suicide notes in two noticeably different handwritings and even one case of neatly putting the ladder back into storage after using it to hang herself from a ceiling rafter. Foul play is not evidenced on the surface in Aaron’s death but dirty trix and and crushing observation is every bit as wicked as crushing a suspect under a bolder or an elephant’s foot. Aaron’s accidental legacy is the exposure of the foul stench of our government’s inner processes. C’mon, Obama! Trix are for kids.

  • DonS

    I’ve followed this case somewhat closely. The deeper you look the more damning and corrupt the Feds . And MIT hasn’t acquitted itself well at all.action

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