The feds’ persecution of internet activist Aaron Swartz

Last week brought the disturbing news that 25-year old coder and internet activist Aaron Swartz was being charged with nine new felony counts for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by downloading too many academic journal articles. Swartz, who helped invent RSS and was a co-founder of Reddit, was also among of the founders the liberal activist groups the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which works to elect liberal members of Congress, and Demand Progress, which has campaigned for net neutrality and other progressive causes. Swartz now is facing a total of 13 felony counts and, if convicted, the possibility of decades in prison plus a $1 million fine.

I can’t pretend to be objective about this; Aaron is a friend. Aaron has been described by the New York Times as an “internet folk hero;” he helped me set up my now-defunct personal blog, and he has helped many others in the left blogosphere in similar ways. In additional to his technical wizardry, he’s an exemplary political citizen (witness his key role in the creation of the PCCC, as noted above, and of Demand Progress) and an intellectual polymath (his blog posts on everything from how to be more productive to the importance of looking at oneself objectively are wonderful).

Aaron is an ardent advocate of open source and using the internet to make information freely available to all. He’s worked with Lawrence Lessig on intellectual property issues and projects like Creative Commons. The alleged crimes he’s been charged with relate to his having downloaded a massive number of articles from JSTOR, a huge online archive of academic journals. The authorities claim he ended to make the articles publicly available via file sharing sites, in violation of copyright, but he may simply have wanted the articles for his own research. For an earlier project he worked on with attorney Shireen Barday, Aaron “downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review.”

The central crime Aaron is being charged with is violating JSTOR’s terms of service agreement. But if that’s a criminal charge, practically everyone who’s ever had a blog should be under arrest. Moreover, Aaron’s attorney said last year that at least one of the alleged victims, M.I.T., “has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.”

The severity of the punishment Aaron faces is wildly out of proportion with the actions he has committed. After all, the journal articles he downloaded were never publicly released, no harm was done, and at least some of the “victims” were urging the feds not to prosecute. It’s hard not to believe that Aaron is being targeted and set as an “example” by corporate interests and others who want to shut down the open access movement.

The abuse of prosecutorial discretion here is completely outrageous. What’s particularly infuriating for progressives is that, for the charges to get to this stage, it’s inconceivable that Obama’s Justice Department and Attorney General Holder have not signed off on this. Like Henry Farrell, I strongly urge that “those who agree, and who have access to some kind of public platform, or otherwise can exert influence should do what they can to push back against this.”

You may also want to donate to Aaron’s defense fund, which is here. The charges are a horrendous abuse of civil liberties and a threat to anyone who cherishes the right to use the internet freely. This must not stand.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee