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.
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:
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.