May 24, 2018

Swartz Faces Additional Charges in Alleged JSTOR Theft


Seth Finkelstein’s blog alerted me to the fact that the case against Aaron Swartz for stealing JTSOR files had expanded from four felony counts to thirteen. The overview of the revised charges:

“Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to:

a. break into a restricted-access computer wiring closet at MIT;
b. access MIT’s network without authorization from a switch within that closet;
c. access JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through MIT’s computer network;
d. use this access to download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s total archive onto his computers and computer hard drives;
e. avoid MIT’s and JSTOR’s efforts to prevent this massive copying, efforts that were directed at users generally and at Swartz’s illicit conduct specifically; and
f. elude detection and identification.”

The indictment is quite readable and is only 16 pages long. Whether you think Mr. Swartz is striking a principled blow for the freedom of information, or is a common (or not so common) thief, it will be interesting to see what comes of this case. As Finkelstein puts it, “It’s beyond my pay grade to figure out how many years in prison that all could be, when taking into account the complexities of sentencing law. Let’s leave it at a large scary number. Enough to ruin someone’s life.”

No matter what you think of JSTOR’s pay wall, if Swartz did what the charges allege, and there is apparently security camera footage to help prove it, these are serious allegations that go to the heart of what it means to be a civil society. If you believe something is wrong there are ways to call attention to and change that wrong — including civil disobedience. But these charges describe crimes that should give anyone pause no matter what you think of the ends Swartz may have been trying to achieve.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Barbara Fister says:

    Without going into whether Swarz was morally right or wrong, I’m not quite sure what you are arguing here – that his actions cannot be construed as an act of civil disobedience, that by committing them repeatedly and attempting to elude detection he surrenders any claims he might have that he was doing it for a good cause and therefore deserves however long a sentence he might receive? that disobedience isn’t civil if it’s persistent?

    I don’t know even know if this act was considered by its actor civil disobedience, but I’m curious about the line you seem to be drawing between civil disobedience and uncivil disobedience. It’s only civil if you surrender quickly? Or if you don’t actually violate any laws?

  2. Barbara: the definition of civil disobedience from Wikipedia is: “Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying international power.” If one can assume that the law Mr. Swartz allegedly intended to defy was U.S. copyright law (and if not, then what?), then purportedly stealing content from an organization that spent quite a bit of resources to get it into digital form is misguided at best. True civil disobedience against U.S. Copyright law would have meant digitizing the material himself and putting it online for free, but he allegedly chose to steal it from someone else instead (one can assume because it is a great deal easier and cheaper to do so). So yes, I don’t see how the alleged crimes are civil disobedience more than they are theft. Do you?

  3. I don’t know. I won’t assume it isn’t, though, until I hear the whole story.

    Whatever you or I think of this particular incident, I’m sure a lot of civil disobedience is considered misguided by many. I think some of the activist but anonymous violations of copyright law are probably performed in the spirit of civil disobedience, which (I think) should include room for those who are not caught and who do not name themselves. In short, I am not ready to dismiss Swartz’s actions as not worthy of civil society on the basis of this indictment. Nor am I quite ready to characterize it as stealing. Unlicensed copying that caused harm to others? That’s certainly a possibility, along with trespassing and other things. But I’m going to wait and see how this falls out before I take the prosecutors’ word for it.

  4. Perhaps you noticed I’ve been very careful to say “alleged”.