Feds charge open data activist with 13 felonies for downloading academic articles

Wired reports that Federal prosectors have added nine additional felony counts against coder, freedom of information activist, and early Reddit employee (or Reddit co-founder, depending on who you ask) Aaron Swartz. Last year, he was charged with breaking hacking laws "by downloading millions of academic articles from a subscription database via an open connection at MIT." Pay attention to this case. The outcome could set precedents that increase legal hazards for security researchers, activists, and online journalists who operate with perfectly good and lawful intentions.


  1. Pay attention to this case
    Bears repeating. It seems farcical that violating the terms of service (which it appears he plainly did) somehow rises to a string of felony charges. This seems to me to be a matter for a civil suit at best.

    1. What do you expect when we use the same word for downloading a file as we use for boarding a ship, stealing the cargo and killing the passengers?

  2. Well, badly writing your scraping software so it sends so many requests that it forces JSTOR offline might be considered criminal or at least negligent. He caused damage to JSTOR’s ability to serve data. If he had written his client correctly, they never would have noticed either. They only tracked him down because his pulling of articles looked like an attack on the site because of the speed with which they were being requested. So, being a dumb ass is kind of its own reward here. Next time, use some QA on your software. :-)

    1. He made some dumb mistakes.  Charging him with 13 felonies is incredibly brutal.  One felony charge is enough to make life miserable.  13 is destroying, or at least massively harming a bright and productive guy’s life – it’s so horribly incommensurate with the crime that it’s mind boggling.

  3. The USA imprisons more people, per capita, than any country in the world.  On any given day, one out of every 50 American adult males are behind bars.  

    America’s harshest-in-the-First-World punishment regime is such an insanely counterproductive social policy that it’s maddening to watch it get even *worse* year by year, like a slow-motion car crash.  It’s a death-spiral of politicians playing the “I’m tougher on crime!” card, abetted by a bureaucracy whose budget-and-promotion lifeblood is “number of convictions.”

    In a supposedly civilized country, it’s absurd that any non-violent crime with no economic damages is punishable by several years in a cage and a de facto lifelong ban on having a decent job.  Absurd, and yet somehow politically popular.

    1. That would be one of the reasons why democracy doesn’t work. Half the population have IQs of less than 100, by definition, and yet, that’s mildly disturbing when you know how little it currently takes takes to be average.

  4. From what I’ve been able to read online, the criminal charges aren’t about his downloading of the JSTOR documents; he’s already settled with JSTOR.  And they aren’t the ones pushing for the criminal charges.

    The issues seem to stem from how he went about doing the downloading. 

    It seems he bought a laptop specifically to leave on their network, physically broke into the premises while knowingly hiding from the cameras, and stashed the laptop clandestinely.  His “document suckage” was invasive enough that they noticed it due to the impact it had on their daily operations and delivery of service/documents to others.  They tried to thwart him (albeit using rather amateurish techniques using silly things like MAC address filters, etc), and he actively counteracted that by simply changing his MAC address.

    Personally, I think he was totally in the wrong for doing what he did, but the only issue that really mattered was between him and JSTOR, and it’s been dealt with.  He wasn’t a hero liberating information, he was a B&E dude with a technical bent.  And he was stupid enough to do it in such a way that it was very noticeable and he got caught.  So yeah, no sympathy from me on that stuff.

    The issue I have is with the bullshit charges coming from statutes that have no proper context with computer/network based “crime”, and their attempt to apply them in situations they were never intended for, well out of their technological context.

    My take is that he should be punished for doing something wrong, but 13 felonies is complete crap and reeks of someone up for election trying to prove a point and score with the public.

    1. What really gets my panties in a wad is that people generally won’t do such a thing unless the big business/educational institution is being unreasonable in the first place leaving them out of options to do things the “right” way, but yet his underlying motivations and reasoning, the possibility that he was Creating justice is left out in the cold.

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