Just learned about this via this post on G+ by Declan McCullagh, which I reproduce here, with some links and short comments added by myself, in order to provide more information. The parts of the mentioned post will appear as quoted ” and my addition will appear unquoted, but [between brackets].
This is terribly sad news: Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York City on Friday, according to this MIT Tech article:
Aaron was facing possible life in prison because he allegedly tried to make journal articles public. The Justice Department’s indictment accuses Aaron of connecting his computer to MIT’s network (without authorization — he was at Harvard, not MIT) and sucking down over 1 million already published academic journal articles from the JSTOR database, which the professors and other authors who wrote them probably would have liked to be free to the public anyway. Here’s the indictment:
Aaron’s scraper wasn’t that well-programmed, and it’s true that he allegedly did this without authorization from MIT. But he downloaded no confidential data from JSTOR — again, these are academic journal articles — and released no data at all. Because Harvard had a JSTOR subscription, Aaron actually had the right to download any of the JSTOR articles for his own use (but not to redistribute or perform a bulk download). Demand Progress compared it to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
If JSTOR was upset, this seems like the type of wrong that could have been remedied through civil litigation. But JSTOR decided against it, with its general counsel Nancy Kopans telling the New York Times that “we are not pursuing further action” against Aaron:
[Maybe worthy to mention a passage from the linked article: “In 2008, Mr. Swartz released a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” calling for activists to “fight back” against the sequestering of scholarly papers and information behind pay walls.”]
The especially sad thing is that JSTOR announced this week that it is now making “more than 4.5 million articles” available to the public at no cost:
BTW, Aaron helped to create RSS, founded Demand Progress [link to the website], which was active on the anti-SOPA front, and sold Infogami to Reddit (now part of Conde Nast):
Perhaps Aaron should have been punished for trespassing, which he did do if the DOJ has its facts right. But last fall the Feds instead slapped him with a superseding indictment featuring 13 felony counts that would mean a worst-case scenario of $4M in fines and possible life in prison (I think we can safely say that 50+ years in prison for someone in their late 20s is life):
I’d be shocked if Congress ever intended for computer crime law to be used this way; I wonder what Lanny Breuer, the head of the DOJ’s criminal division, would say if asked about it the next time he testifies on Capitol Hill. Perhaps Breuer would say this case is a model of restraint: after all, Aaron wasn’t charged with violating the No Electronic Theft Act, which would have added yet another set of felony charges! Paging Harvey Silverglate…
I never met Aaron, and don’t know what led him to this point. Perhaps it was unrelated to the criminal charges. But it’s very sad news, and I can’t help thinking that the possibility of life behind bars, because of alleged bulk downloading that many Americans might be surprised even qualifies as a crime, led to Aaron’s decision to commit suicide. His criminal trial was scheduled to begin in two months.