Answer by Suzanne Sadedin:

This is Aaron Swartz, a brilliant programmer, co-inventor of several key internet technologies, idealist, social activist… and according to the US government, criminal.

What was his crime? He believed that the public has a right to access publicly funded research papers. He thought science shouldn't be held to ransom by greedy publishing companies that contribute nothing to research. You can read his manifesto from 2008 here:

Full text of "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto"

Three years later, that manifesto would be used against him. While a research associate at Harvard University in 2011, he went to MIT and downloaded 4.8 million scientific articles from the online academic library JSTOR. Though Swartz's account was legal, such mass downloads were a violation of JSTOR's terms of service.

Swartz had previously attracted FBI suspicion back in 2009, when he used a Perl script at a Chicago library to share nearly 20 million court records that were being sold over the internet by a government agency. The records were legally free to access, so the FBI was powerless to stop him, but they didn't forget the humiliation. While biking home from MIT after his JSTOR stunt, Swartz was arrested and later charged with 4 felonies. As the New York Times reported it: "a respected Harvard researcher who also is an Internet folk hero has been arrested in Boston on charges related to computer hacking, which are based on allegations that he downloaded articles that he was entitled to get free."

Did Swartz plan to share the articles he downloaded? His manifesto was used as evidence of intent by prosecutors, but those who knew him say he planned to analyze the documents for evidence of corruption. Regardless, the only actual impact of his "crime" was that for a few days, JSTOR blocked MIT's access. JSTOR declined to prosecute Swartz, and MIT's network and facilities were readily accessible by design.

During 2011 Swartz — already facing multiple charges of computer and wire fraud — launched a new activist group and led victorious campaigns against SOPA and PIPA, two pieces of legislation that would have crippled internet freedom. Evidently he had not learned his lesson.

In 2012, the government increased the charges against him to 13. His legal defenders were still optimistic. When he was offered a plea bargain including a mere 6 months in prison, they refused. But by August, the case had sucked away all his money and Swartz was reduced to begging his allies for financial support.

On 9 January 2013, JSTOR announced that a large portion of its journals would now be open access. But for Swartz, it was too late. He was facing up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines after years of persecution by the US government. His counter-offer to government prosecutors had just been refused. With no end to the torment in sight, on 11 January Swartz hanged himself.

He was 26 years old. He paid for his crime with his life. That heinous, unforgivable crime of possibly having intended to provide public access to scientific research that was now mostly open access anyway.

Oh, sorry, this was meant to be uplifting, wasn't it? Well, when the law and moral behavior are placed in opposition, your stories are going to be about tyranny. I guess that's uplifting for tyrants.

Some sources:

The New York Times
Aaron Swartz Wanted To Save the World. Why Couldn’t He Save Himself
Remember Aaron Swartz
Image by Sage Ross (Flickr: Boston Wiki Meetup) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (Creative Commons – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic – CC BY-SA 2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What are the best examples of actions that are moral, even uplifting, but illegal?


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