MIT agrees to release redacted Aaron Swartz files – Salon.com
The president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on Tuesday that the school will voluntarily release public documents related to the prosecution of the free-information activist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in January as he faced trial on hacking charges.
The email announcement by MIT president L Rafael Reif came in response to a request on Friday by lawyers for Swartz’s estate to have the US district court in Boston make the documents public. The university has come under fire for what critics say is its compliance with federal prosecutors in the legal case against Swartz. Supporters of Swartz have painted him as a zealous advocate of public online access, a martyred hero hounded to his death by the government he antagonized.
Swartz Charged with Many Crimes to Force Guilty Plea
Aaron Swartz: Eric Holder calls Aaron Swartz case “a good use of prosecutorial discretion.”
Earlier this morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Eric Holder on topics ranging from drones to marijuana policy. About an hour into the oversight hearing, Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, asked Holder about the DOJ’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and Internet activist who committed suicide in January. Among other things, Swartz had been charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for using MIT’s computer network to unauthorizedly download millions of academic journal articles from a subscription database called JSTOR. He was facing a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison.
The DOJ may have only intended for Swartz to go to jail for a couple months. It’s clear, though, they would’ve had no problem with sending him away for a few years, too. I think Sen. Cornyn put it nicely: “If you’re an individual American citizen, and you’re looking at criminal charges being brought by the United States government, with all of the vast resources available to the government, it strikes me as disproportionate, and one that is basically being used inappropriately, to try to bully someone into pleading guilty to something that strikes me as rather minor.”
Holder claimed that the Department of Justice had conducted “a good examination” of the Swartz prosecution, and came away from it satisfied that there had been no prosecutorial misconduct. And maybe there wasn’t, if you’re judging the prosecutors on whether they deviated from standard DOJ practice. But there is a flaw in the system if the DOJ’s best route to get the sentence it’s looking for is to threaten defendants with disproportionate prison terms. That might be an effective prosecutorial tactic, but that’s not justice.
So, a federal prosecutor stacks charges on what should be a single offense in order to get someone to plead guilty. Is that justice? Does it bear any resemblance to justice?
Swartz had a strong defense but by the stacking the charges the feds had placed him in a situation where if he lost he could serve fifty years.
It sounds to me that if you wanted to, as a federal prosecutor, you could force people to settle even if they were innocent – just stack the charges so that the risk of losing will put in jail for decades then offer a few months. You generate another trophy for that wall and don’t actually have to go to court and take your case to a jury.
That’s not justice, it’s just a use of overwhelming government resources to force the win.
Tell me, if I put you in a situation like Swartz where you could serve up to fifty years in prison and they offer you three to six months, and you have done nothing, would you take the deal?
Are you willing to rely on your innocence in court, and risk fifty years? You have to think about it, don’t you?
Let’s make it a little tougher. You can’t afford your own attorney and the government is willing to spend several million dollars and thousands of hours investigating you. Every corner of your life will be turned upside down. You’ll go bankrupt from fees. You probably won’t be able to hold a job because of the regular court appearances and your reputation just went through the shredder.
Do you still want to plead innocent or will you take the three months just to make it stop?
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
Not only was Swartz a computer science genius, he was also heavily devoted to freedom of information—which is where he found himself getting into trouble. His friend, journalist and science fiction novelist Cory Doctorow, says he was a “full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” His first target was PACER.gov, a website that provides court documents to the public for a small fee (about 8 cents per page). In 2008, Swartz, funded by his own money, single-handedly moved the information on to a public website. He released over 18 million pages, an estimated total value of 1.5 million dollars. The FBI investigated the situation, but no charges were filed against him.
Shortly after, Swartz founded DemandProgress.org, a website devoted to internet activism. The website was integral in taking down the Stop Online Piracy and the Protect IP Acts of 2011, two bills which allowed the government more control over what could and could not be posted and shared on the internet (they deserve their own blog post—next week, perhaps).
What got him into conflict with the judicial system, after some earlier and less significant jostles, was breaking into M.I.T. computer networks in 2010 and 2011, to access JSTOR and to download documents from there. It was apparently meant to be a demonstration, to underline his case that documents like JSTOR’s should be freely available. It had long been argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense, writes the New York Times. The NYT has a detailed account of Swartz’ JSTOR activity. The indictment says that JSTOR’s servers were brought down by his action on several occasions, Wired wrote in September 2012.
It’s apparently a Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) which was applied by federal prosecutors. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in limiting reach of the CFAA, said that violations of employee contract agreements and websites’ terms of service – crucial in Swartz’ case, apparently, at least if up to the prosecutors – were better left to civil lawsuits, also according to Wired. But this ruling wasn’t binding for Massachusetts, and the prosecutors insisted that their charges against Swartz should go on. The maximum penalty – potentially – could have amounted to 35 years in prison, and a million USD penalty. The chief prosecutor in charge was Steve Heymann, who had previously brought hacker Albert Gonzales into jail with a 20-year term.
Aaron Swartz Laid to Rest with an Action Plan For Us | Crooks and Liars
In New York on Saturday, a public memorial was held for Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide last week. Among the remembrances of Aaron’s genius, his commitment to progressive causes, his idealistic beliefs of making this a better world, there was also an action plan laid out by his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman:
“Aaron was targeted by the FBI,” said ThoughtWorks chairman Roy Singham, Swartz’s employer before his death. “After PACER, they targeted him. He was strip-searched. Let’s not pretend this wasn’t political,” he argued before being interrupted by applause.
Swartz’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman framed her call to action in terms of Swartz’s beliefs: “Aaron believed there was no shame in failure. There is deep, deep shame in caring more about believing you’re changing the world than actually changing the world.”Stinebrickner-Kauffman, also an activist, named five targets for action:
Hold the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office accountable for its actions in prosecuting Aaron;
Press MIT to ensure that it would “never be complicit in an event like this again”;
“All academic research for all time should be made free and open and available to anybody in the world”;
Pass and strengthen “Aaron’s Law,” an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would narrow prosecutorial discretion for computer crimes;
Advocate for fundamental reform of the criminal justice system.
“His last two years were not easy. His death was not easy,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said. Still, she urged the audience to “think big and think tiny… ‘The revolution will be A/B tested,'” referencing three of Swartz’s favorite maxims. “Look up and not down.”
I continue to be outraged by the prosecutorial over reach in the Swartz case. I consider the “crime” for which he was accused to be little more than an example of trying to make public files available at no cost, something that should be policy across the United States. For instance, in Arkansas, there are fees for accessing the laws of the state online so without money I am just supposed to wonder what the law of the state are.
He was a hero in pursuit of making the Internet a source of genuine information rather than a fee making machine for public institutions to make money off public research and public scholarship. We, the people, paid for this research. We should be able to see it. Public laws should be accessible without fees. We are citizens, not turnips to be squeezed.
I read that information pioneer Aaron Swartz has took his own life last week at the age of 26. Swartz helped develop RSS at the age of 14 and founded Reddit among other things. His website is still open if you want to read from the source. To me he stands no less significant in information and computing science than any working at Bletchley Park during the second world war. Certainly, his story is far more relevant in high-school classrooms than what is currently in ‘the text’ book.
The internet trailblazer and activist, who had already contributed such things to the web as an early version of the RSS feed and Reddit, stood up and joined the vanguard in this movement. He co-founded the organization, Demand Progress, which was instrumental in leading the largest online protest in the history of the Internet against SOPA and PIPA. Thanks to this effort, on January 18th, 2012, tens of thousands of websites blacked out, and ultimately, SOPA and PIPA were defeated by this online grassroots activism.
Today, that same internet is “blacked out” with remembrances and obituaries of Aaron Swartz, who took his life over the weekend. And in each of those remembrances, Aaron is described as a spark that made things happen. And for the rest of us who still believe, as Aaron did, in a free and open internet and a compassionate and just nation (a message he often espoused on our show, The Big Picture), we can only hope he provides the same sort of spark in death that he did in life.
Aaron Swartz suicide: Prosecutors have too much power to charge and intimidate people for their crimes. – Slate Magazine
The underlying point Boyd is making, I think, is that the government doesn’t understand hackers and isn’t good at distinguishing between miscreant vigilantes like Swartz who are trying to free information systems and profit-driven or diabolical hackers who are trying to bring down those systems. That’s when an expansive law like the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act becomes dangerous. Prosecutors persuaded of their own righteousness, and woodenly equating downloading a deliberately unprotected database with stealing, lose all sense of proportion and bring in the heavy artillery when what’s in order is a far more mild penalty.
I’d like to tell you that the prosecutorial overreach that took place in Swartz’s case rarely happens. But that’s not true. There are many principled prosecutors who only bring charges they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. But there are also some who bring any charge they can think of to induce a defendant who may be guilty of a minor crime to plead guilty to a major one. These cases usually are hard to call attention to: They’re not about innocence, easy and pure. They’re about the muddier concept of proportionality. If any good at all can come from Swartz’s unspeakably sorrowful death, maybe it will be how this case makes prosecutors—and the rest of us—think about the space between guilt and innocence.
There are some real villains here. The federal prosecutor, Carmen M. Ortiz and, of course, MIT.
I’m disgusted by the government’s and MIT’s actions in the case. There is nothing that Swartz did that was worthy of a day in prison much less 35 years of prison time. MIT did everything they could to actively push the case while giving the public the impression that they weren’t. Nice try, but the simple fact is, that without MIT’s heavy cooperation, the government would have had great difficulty making a case at all.
A few days ago, the government decided not to prosecute HSBC, a bank, that laundered nine billion dollars of money for drug cartels but they were pursuing a case against a man who “stole” documents that should have been accessible to the public for free, a man who sought no monetary profit at all.
I find these remarks by Lawrence Lessig to be dead on point:
Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
This is the most shocking news for the Computer and Internet industries, a deafening blow for all those campaigners who demand internet freedom and for technology enthusiasts in general. Aaron Swartz is dead. Worst still is the fact that he has committed suicide. As the web mourns the demise of a computer prodigy whose body of work had very few parallels, the injustice done to him by the US prosecution and the MIT is very visible and very disheartening, and that’s putting it mildly.
Aaron was facing criminal charges for stealing more than 4 million articles from JSTOR, an online archive and journal distribution service. And if found guilty he faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. But then he was also the face of the struggle against US laws of SOPA and PIPA as well as other government imposed sanctions that threatened to restrict internet freedom and which have been opposed by all major internet organizations including Google and Wikipedia.
A lot of people close to Aaron smelled foul play on the part of the US prosecution and the MIT because even JSTOR decided not to press charges against Aaron.
The Guardian quoted the statement given by Aaron’s family, “Aaron’s death in not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”
As Aaron said, ” Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” It is really painful to see someone brilliant – in fact, an enfant terrible going by what Aaron had done in a span of handful years – heeding to Plato’s injunction, “The punishment suffered by the wise who refuse to take part in Government, is to suffer under the Government of bad men”, ” making an attempt to change the modern powerful structures, go down.
P.S : One of the talks by Swartz How to Get A Job Like Mine, basically his personal story, bookmarked in my folder some time back, is a real classic with “just the facts.”
As I wrote a while ago, the feds decided to push for internet censorship via their last best hope: the free markets.
Big telecom companies are coming up with their own means by which to wipe certain people with certain ideas off the “internets”. I guess it’s payback for all that retroactive immunity they got from the Bush and Obama administrations when they could have been sued out the ying yang for allowing the feds to spy on us.
The idea is basically this: Verizon will tell it’s customers when someone files a claim against them for copyright infringement. Verizon will give their users “x” amount of warnings then reduce their internet speed to something like a dial-up connection which will basically take them off the web for all intents and purposes.
As Aaron pointed out in a lecture he gave a year or so ago, the use of the ubiquitous “copyright infringement” charge is a dangerous and sweeping tool to use to shut down certain people. Everything is copyrighted by someone out there and the laws governing how much of what one can use are mirky at best.
Verizon claims they will set up a review panel with the American Arbitration Association and if you pay them $35 bucks they will review your case and find in favor of Verizon.
I find it very odd that Aaron just happened to take his own life when Verizon was about to launch this new SOPA/PIPA program of theirs own their own customers. I also find it odd that he was going to try his hacking case in court which would have brought tons of negative publicity down on JSTOR, portraying them as the guardians of knowledge for the elites.