On Crime and Access to Knowledge

peter.suber's bookmarks 2013-04-01


"When my friend Aaron Swartz killed himself on January 11, 2013, it had been two years since he was arrested for downloading too many journal articles. Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney, had charged him with 13 felony counts, stating that 'stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar.' Aaron had accessed the JSTOR database, a collection of over 1,800 academic journals that have been scanned and are available to subscribers, such as major research universities. For those that are allowed to access JSTOR, the service is a tremendous advance, allowing researchers to find, download, and read journal articles quickly and conveniently. For those not fortunate enough to be at institutions such as Harvard or Oxford, JSTOR makes articles available at an average price of $21 per article, effectively locking the rest of the world out from what science historian Lisbet Rausing called 'the foundations of sociology, anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, classics, Oriental studies, theology, musicology, and the history of science.' Aaron was deeply disturbed by JSTOR and other databases that erected walls between people and knowledge when he wrote in 2008 that 'the world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.' Aaron didn’t break into JSTOR, he used a valid JSTOR guest account available on the MIT campus, which runs an open network. Had he downloaded 1 article every day for 4.8 million days, there would have been no problem. Had he downloaded 100 articles every day for 48,000 days, that would have been fine as well, nobody would have noticed. But he downloaded 4.8 million articles in 100 days. Somewhere between 100 articles a day and 48,000 articles a day, Aaron crossed an invisible line. He didn’t release any of this information, it just accumulated on a disk drive, but the pace of the download brought an investigation by JSTOR, who called in the MIT network staff, who called in the police, and on January 6, 2011, Aaron was arrested. He was indicted on 2 counts of wire fraud, 4 counts of fraud and related activity in connection with computers, 5 counts of unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and 1 count of recklessly damaging a protected computer. The charges had a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. This was a big deal, the kind of charges one brings against a gang stealing millions of credit cards. This wasn’t a crowbar he was accused of using, he was accused of major capital crimes, an imminent danger to public order and public safety. It is important to note that since Aaron’s arrest, JSTOR has taken many steps to liberalize access to the archive, steps limited in large part by their inability to force reform with the publishers of these journals who have grown accustomed to immensely lucrative gross margins arising from their historical position as the designated intermediaries for the academic world and who set the per-article prices that JSTOR charges. One must also remember that JSTOR is a messenger, an intermediary, and if there is a fault here, that fault is ultimately the fault of the scholars who wrote those articles and allowed them to be locked up. It was a corruption of scholarship when the academy handed over copyright to knowledge so that it could be rationed in order to extract rents. It is also important to note that much of the blame for the escalation of this situation rests with MIT, which is now conducting a broad internal investigation. The culture of experimentation and 'hacking' at MIT stretches back to the earliest days of computers, and many students and faculty (including former visiting professors such as myself) are aghast at how they handled this situation. MIT clearly screwed this up. No matter how one looks at this situation, the actions of JSTOR and MIT were the catalyst in a chain of events, and it was the actions of MIT and JSTOR that brought in the federal prosecutors. Once the federal authorities were involved, even though JSTOR declined to press charges, there was no going back, and this led to a merciless 2-year prosecution to make an example of Aaron Swartz ..."



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Date tagged:

04/01/2013, 14:57

Date published:

04/01/2013, 10:27