Google Yes, Wikipedia Yes, Aaron Swartz No?

We praise Google and Wikipedia for making knowledge more available — consider them two of the best innovations of the last 50 years — but after Aaron Swartz, a friend of mine, apparently tried to do the same thing he was charged with wire and computer fraud and faces up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine.

The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, made an interesting statement:

Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

In my experience, tautological statements such as “stealing is stealing” or “correlation is not causation” do not bode well for that side of the argument. As Thorstein Veblen might say, the reason for the tautology was the need for it.

Ortiz’s statement shows that she, like the rest of us, thinks that what matters is amount of harm. Harm is hard to find here. The only clear harm is that MIT access to JSTOR was shut down for a few days. This is so minor that JSTOR’s statement about the case (which includes “it was the government’s decision whether to prosecute, not JSTOR’s. . . . We [have] no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter”) doesn’t mention it. I don’t think many people will agree that this amount of harm justifies the charges that Ortiz has brought.

Sign a petition supporting Aaron.

6 Replies to “Google Yes, Wikipedia Yes, Aaron Swartz No?”

  1. Seth, he was trying to take something and knew he did not have permission to take it. Or do you dispute this description of what he did:

    The indictment (.pdf) accuses Swartz of repeatedly spoofing the MAC address — an identifier that is usually static — of his computer after MIT blocked his computer based on that number. Swartz also allegedly snuck an Acer laptop bought just for the downloading into a closet at MIT in order to get a persistent connection to the network.

    Swartz allegedly hid his face from surveillance cameras by holding his bike helmet up to his face and looking through the ventilation holes when going in to swap out an external drive used to store the documents. Swartz also allegedly named his guest account “Gary Host,” with the nickname “Ghost.”

    1. “Seth, he was trying to take something and knew he did not have permission to take it. Or do you dispute this description of what he did?” What I dispute is that what you just said is all we need to think about when deciding how his actions should be dealt with. There have been many examples of civil disobedience in human history. All of them involved people doing what they did not have “permission” to do. For example, Rosa Parks sat where she did not have permission to sit. I think it is a good idea to think about them when deciding what should happen in this case.

  2. Seth, “civil disobedience” usually means intentionally violating a law and intentionally and publicly taking the consequences because you think the law is unjust and should be challenged. That’s Rosa Parks. The goal is to testing the law and people’s reactions to the case against the person testing it. The civil disobedience you are talking about is different. Swartz didn’t want to get caught, he wanted a fait accompli. He wanted the articles irretrievably released. So compared to Rosa Parks, Swartz is not a civil disobedient.

    You also argue that there was no ‘harm’ other than the MIT shutdown of JSTOR access. Of course, the actual harm of a failed crime is irrelevant. You need to look at the harm if the person had succeeded. I think you are really saying there would have been no harm to others if Swartz had ‘freed’ huge chunks of JSTOR because it is unjust for JSTOR to be limited-access. Is that right?

    It’s not exactly the same, but should I free Shangri-La Diet and email it to huge groups of people so I can help thousands of them get healthier? Should I free the archives of high-quality subsription websites giving paleo- health advice?

    1. “I think you are really saying that there would have been no harm to others if…” No, of course there would have been harm to others — JSTOR employees, for example. Just as Rosa Parks caused harm to many. And of course there are differences between what Rosa Parks did and what Swartz did. I am saying the similarities matter.

  3. I feel like you’re skipping the key harm: to the journals and people whose works are published through JSTOR. If you say there would be no harm to the publications and no harm to the authors, that’s a very big point. Will you step up and say that?

    You are also ignoring that Swartz didn’t choose civil disobedience like Rosa Parks did: He wasn’t petitioning for a law to make JSTOR public, he didn’t try to get each of the journals in JSTOR to agree with him, he didn’t go to Congress, and he didn’t try to publish a small number of articles illegally so that he could get caught on purpose and try to test the issues in court and change people’s minds. He tried to take everyone’s publications–without their consent–and make them all public so that JSTOR was public.

    You may like what he did, and you may like civil disobedience, but what he did is not civil disobedience. He wasn’t trying to start a debate, he was trying to end one.

    1. “What he did is not civil disobedience.” Okay. I am not concerned about whether his actions fit your definition. “Harm to authors”. None — they want their work publicized. “Harm to journals” — Unlikely. They too want wide distribution. “He wasn’t trying to start a debate, he was trying to end one.” Huh? I don’t understand how you know what he was trying to do. Of course he could have done a dozen other things. That could be said about anything anyone does to achieve any goal. My point is that what he did and what Rosa Parks did have similarities, which are important. Rosa Parks believed that Negroes should be able to sit where they want on a bus. To help create such a world, she deliberately broke a rule restricting where they can sit. Swartz believed that the journal articles he downloaded should be more widely available. To help create such a world, he deliberately broke a rule restricting access.

      It’s perfectly reasonable that if you want to create a better world, you take steps in that direction, even if some of the steps break rules. Even if what you do differs from what someone else did. Even if what you do isn’t exactly “civil disobedience.” Tom, your questions about harm to journals and authors, which you call the “key harm”, emphasize how little harm Swartz did. The harm to journals and authors is vague or non-existent. Whereas the benefit to the rest of us — had he made the downloaded papers widely available — is obvious.

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