[Marxism] Latest on Aaron Swartz

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 25 08:17:18 MDT 2011

NY Times July 24, 2011
‘Free Culture’ Advocate May Pay High Price

A GUY walks into a candy store and sees one of those “leave a 
penny, take a penny” trays. He picks it up, cups his hands and 
asks, “What can I get for 68 cents?”

That image came to mind with the case of Aaron Swartz, a 
24-year-old agitator for free access to information on the 
Internet who managed to download more than four million articles 
and reviews onto his laptop computers from a subscription-only 
digital storehouse. The material was from some of the most 
prestigious — and expensive — scientific and literary journals in 
the world.

Like the penny opportunist, Mr. Swartz was invited to sample the 
wares of the nonprofit online collection Jstor, and he interpreted 
that invitation quite expansively. Using a program that 
automatically paged through each issue of more than 1,300 
journals, he was able to methodically download their contents, 
making a copy of almost everything in the collection.

Yet this episode is hardly a joke. Mr. Swartz was arrested last 
week in Boston on a series of felony counts including wire fraud, 
computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected 
computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. If 
convicted on all counts, the Justice Department said he could face 
up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Mr. Swartz is not a run-of-the-mill hacking suspect. He has been 
known for his computer work since he was 14, when he was involved 
in developing the software behind RSS feeds, which distribute 
content over the Internet. At the time the investigation began, he 
was a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, 
though he was later placed on leave.

Mr. Swartz did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment. His 
lawyer would not comment other than to note that Mr. Swartz had 
pleaded not guilty to the indictment, which “puts everything in it 
in dispute.”

It should be emphasized, however, that Mr. Swartz was not trying 
to profit from his activities. He has been a fierce advocate of 
redistributing information, so much so that in 2008 he promoted a 
Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto (no longer available online) that 
said it was imperative to “take information, wherever it is 
stored, make our copies and share them with the world.”

We are not talking about the latest X-Men movie or Lady Gaga 
album. Rather it is the research contained in specialized 
scientific journals with subscriptions that can cost thousands of 
dollars; institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars to 
Jstor. which stands for Journal Storage, for a subscription that 
bundles these publications online.

That money, Jstor says, is needed to collect and distribute the 
material and, at times, subsidize institutions that cannot afford 
it. Founded in 1995, Jstor started with 10 journals available to a 
few American universities and has since expanded to include about 
325,000 journal issues available at more than 7,000 institutions.

His supporters question why the government has reacted so 
strongly. “This makes no sense,” said David Segal, executive 
director of Demand Progress, an organization Mr. Swartz founded to 
rally support online for an open Internet. “It’s like trying to 
put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of 
the library.”

The government had its own interpretation of what Mr. Swartz did. 
“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a 
crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” the 
United States attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, said 
last week in a statement about the case. “It is equally harmful to 
the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

In the government indictment, Mr. Swartz is described as becoming 
more and more devious in his downloading, signing on with a fake 
name as a visitor to the M.I.T. campus, and then, when detected, 
taking more serious steps. At one point, the government says, he 
tried to get access to the university’s network at a wiring 
closet, and in an attempt to evade security cameras “held his 
bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through 
ventilation holes in the helmet.”

It is a tricky situation for Jstor, which got back the hard drives 
containing its material from Mr. Swartz. It sees itself as having 
the long-term objective of “continuously adding more content and 
making it affordably available to more people around the world.”

Asked if it was pleased that someone misusing the service could be 
brought to justice, a spokeswoman for Jstor wrote in an e-mail 
response: “We wanted the content back, and we were able to secure 
it and ensure it wasn’t distributed. We were not interested in 
further legal action around this incident. We have no comment on 
the prosecution or how they have chosen to characterize it.”

Courtroom battles over file-sharing — as well as the persistent 
question of whether copying is “stealing” — are old hat. But the 
seriousness of the charges, the nature of the material and the 
motives behind Mr. Swartz’s actions lend the case a political edge 
for many people who grew up with the Internet.

Demand Progress has highlighted the Swartz case on its Web site, 
and it says 45,000 people have “signed” its online petition to 
“stand with Aaron Swartz and his lifetime of work on ethics in 
government and academics.”

While the group Students for Free Culture, an international 
organization working to promote free culture ideals, wrote in an 
e-mail that it had no official position on the Swartz prosecution, 
the group said it was no surprise that the topic would interest 
college students.

“One reason that free-culture issues are popular (and not 
perceived as overly technical or legalistic) is that censorship, 
copyright abuses, privacy violations, shady network management and 
other bad behaviors are actually shocking for people who rely on 
the network for everyday communication,” the group wrote. “They 
undermine expectations that have built up over years and years of 

For Glenn Greenwald, a blogger for Salon and an outspoken critic 
of the government’s treatment of Bradley E. Manning, the soldier 
accused of providing secret files later released by WikiLeaks, it 
also makes sense that a young generation would view the Internet 
in political terms.

“How information is able to be distributed over the Internet, it 
is the free speech battle of our times,” he said in interview. “It 
can seem a technical, legalistic movement if you don’t think about 
it that way.”

He said that point was illustrated by his experience with 
WikiLeaks — and by how the Internet became a battleground as the 
site was attacked by hackers and as large companies tried to 
isolate WikiLeaks. Looking at that experience and the Swartz case, 
he said, “clearly the government knows that this is the prime 
battle, the front line for political control.”

On Twitter, WikiLeaks itself made the link, writing in part, “Keep 
fighting Mr. Swartz, history is on your side.”

In a comment posted online on Thursday, Gregory Maxwell, 31, a 
programmer from northern Virginia, wrote that the Swartz case had 
caused him to rethink his own actions.

He said he had long kept thousands of digital copies of issues 
from the early years of The Philosophical Transactions of the 
Royal Society, which are available at Jstor, but that he had never 
shared them.

“I’ve been afraid that if I published them I would be subject to 
unjust legal harassment by those who profit from controlling 
access to these works,” he said. Noting the arrest of Mr. Swartz, 
he wrote, “I now feel that I’ve been making the wrong decision.”

He made the entire file available last week, and did not do it 

“One reason I put my name on the release, I strongly believe that 
if any legal action is taken against me, it will be an unjust 
one,” he wrote, “and I intend to fight it so that other people 
have less to be afraid of.”

Pennies for everyone.

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