Demand Progress’ Aaron Swartz and the Rush to Judgment

on July 19, 2011
Reading Time: 2 minutes

When people talk about the internet encouraging a rush to judgment, they are usually referring to tendency to assume the guilt of anyone charged with a crime, say a Casey Anthony or Dominique Strauss-Kahn, before all the facts are known, let alone a before a jury has rendered a verdict. But sometimes it works the other way.

On July 19, a federal grand jury indicted Aaron Swartz, a founder of Reddit and the political activist site Demand Progress on a list of charges related to the download of nearly 5 million articles from the academic journal archive JSTOR. Swartz and Demand Progress were smart. Even before the news of the indictment had spread, the site carried a blog post with the headline “Federal Government Indicts Former Demand Progress Executive Director For Downloading Too Many Journal Articles.”

The post allowed Swartz to set the tone for the commentary that followed. It quoted Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal as saying the indictment is “like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.” Numerous posters rushed to Swartz’ defense on Twitter many quoting the Demand Progress headline or picking up on the “checking out too many books” theme. A post by Oliver Day (@zeroday), “There are apparently no more documents in JSTOR, aaron schwartz stole them *all*,”  was widely retweeted.

The problem with all this is that the grand jury indictment paints a very different picture of  Swartz’ activities, making it sound more like he backed up a truck to the library loading dock (of course, the physical book analogy fails because, as zeroday’s Tweet suggests, any number of people can download a JSTOR document with depriving others of access.) The indictment describes a running war as JSTOR and  MIT worked to cut off Swartz’ downloads and acuses him of physically breaking into a MIT wiring closet to gain access after MIT administrators had barred his computer from the network.

The indictment makes no reference to the status of relations between JSTOR and Swartz though in general, a felony prosecution is at the discretion of the prosecutor, not a victim. And the indictment itself makes it clear that MIT, including the MIT Campus Police, participated actively in the investigation. (Someone who wants to try the things described in the indictment might do well to target a network less intensely and competently monitored and logged than MIT’s.)

I have no opinion as the Swartz’ guilt or innocence. But the charges of wire fraud and theft are serious ones and cannot be dismissed as “downloading too many articles.” As for what might be the motivations for the downloads, I am sympathetic with those who argue that JSTOR represents an obsolete and repressive system of extremely expensive controlled access to scientific journals (and also an invaluable resource to researchers.) But the future of paid, print journals is a complex subject that must be addressed by means other than vigilantism. Some informed debate on that subject would be helpful.

NOTE: The original version of this post misspelled Swartz’ name as Schwartz.