Aaron Swartz Case Highlights Our Unbalanced Scales Of Justice

clipart of justice scales

I didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was before hearing about his death this weekend. I realized I had heard of him once his biography was reported when the story of his death spread across the Internet. It seems Swartz committed suicide and that action might have been the result of stress due to his upcoming trial for computer fraud and abuse. If convicted he was looking at least 35 to 50 years in federal prison. What crime did he commit with his computer? He “stole” information from behind a paywall that he believed should be free to the public since we paid for the creation of the information. While his death is tragic for his friends and family, his case shows how unbalanced our justice system can be.

But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. 

In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at M.I.T. by means that included gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.

Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a United States attorney, pressed on, saying that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” 

Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide

So was Swartz’s actions a crime deserving 35 years in prison. That’s debatable. Like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I think it seems more like political activism:

If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.

Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.

Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an extraordinary hacker and activist

People are going to say Swartz broke the law and I would agree, if the case was proven in court then he did break the law, but he didn’t profit from the “crime” or do it to enrich himself. He planned on making the academic journals, with content created using tax dollars, accessible to the people who paid for it – us. He broke a law for the public good. How that requires decades in prison I don’t know.

Then we have some people who we know broke the law and profited from their “crime” and enriched themselves, who weren’t arrested, won’t be in a criminal court, and won’t serve any jail time.

JPMorgan allegedly earned $2.7 million on the securities offering in question, while investors lost $37 million; Bear Stearns allegedly earned $138 million from its settlement collections.

The banks resolved the case without admitting or denying the allegations, as is typical in such settlements.

JPMorgan said it was “pleased to have reached agreement with the SEC.” Credit Suisse also said it was “pleased” to resolve the matter, adding that it’s “committed to the highest standards of integrity and regulatory compliance in all its businesses.”

The case was brought in conjunction with the Obama administration’s Residential Mortgage Backed Securities working group, which includes attorneys from the Justice Department, the SEC and the New York Attorney’s General’s Office. The working group was announced earlier this year with a stated goal of rooting our wrongdoing tied to the financial crisis, but critics say it’s done little to hold individuals on Wall Street responsible. 

SEC settles with JPMorgan, Credit Suisse over mortgage securities

So if you use a computer to free information that should be free, you could potentially have to serve more jail time than a Banker who actually steals money through fraud.

How is THAT fair if stealing is stealing?