Political Animal


September 23, 2012 2:37 PM The feds’ persecution of internet activist Aaron Swartz

By Kathleen Geier

Last week brought the disturbing news that 25-year old coder and internet activist Aaron Swartz was being charged with nine new felony counts for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by downloading too many academic journal articles. Swartz, who helped invent RSS and was a co-founder of Reddit, was also among of the founders the liberal activist groups the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which works to elect liberal members of Congress, and Demand Progress, which has campaigned for net neutrality and other progressive causes. Swartz now is facing a total of 13 felony counts and, if convicted, the possibility of decades in prison plus a $1 million fine.

I can’t pretend to be objective about this; Aaron is a friend. Aaron has been described by the New York Times as an “internet folk hero;” he helped me set up my now-defunct personal blog, and he has helped many others in the left blogosphere in similar ways. In additional to his technical wizardry, he’s an exemplary political citizen (witness his key role in the creation of the PCCC, as noted above, and of Demand Progress) and an intellectual polymath (his blog posts on everything from how to be more productive to the importance of looking at oneself objectively are wonderful).

Aaron is an ardent advocate of open source and using the internet to make information freely available to all. He’s worked with Lawrence Lessig on intellectual property issues and projects like Creative Commons. The alleged crimes he’s been charged with relate to his having downloaded a massive number of articles from JSTOR, a huge online archive of academic journals. The authorities claim he ended to make the articles publicly available via file sharing sites, in violation of copyright, but he may simply have wanted the articles for his own research. For an earlier project he worked on with attorney Shireen Barday, Aaron “downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review.”

The central crime Aaron is being charged with is violating JSTOR’s terms of service agreement. But if that’s a criminal charge, practically everyone who’s ever had a blog should be under arrest. Moreover, Aaron’s attorney said last year that at least one of the alleged victims, M.I.T., “has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.”

The severity of the punishment Aaron faces is wildly out of proportion with the actions he has committed. After all, the journal articles he downloaded were never publicly released, no harm was done, and at least some of the “victims” were urging the feds not to prosecute. It’s hard not to believe that Aaron is being targeted and set as an “example” by corporate interests and others who want to shut down the open access movement.

The abuse of prosecutorial discretion here is completely outrageous. What’s particularly infuriating for progressives is that, for the charges to get to this stage, it’s inconceivable that Obama’s Justice Department and Attorney General Holder have not signed off on this. Like Henry Farrell, I strongly urge that “those who agree, and who have access to some kind of public platform, or otherwise can exert influence should do what they can to push back against this.”

You may also want to donate to Aaron’s defense fund, which is here. The charges are a horrendous abuse of civil liberties and a threat to anyone who cherishes the right to use the internet freely. This must not stand.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • TCinLA on September 23, 2012 7:11 PM:

    So why hasn't one of those people who go around setting up those internet petitions I seem to always get, set up on so we can complain directly to Holder about this?

  • billb on September 23, 2012 10:10 PM:

    boys and girls , we live in a police-state. bush/obama have destroyed your constitutional / bill of rights. they are coming for all of us eventually.

  • Annette on September 23, 2012 10:34 PM:

    It's very disturbing. Yes what can we do? Holder's and Obama's DOJ is dreadful.

    Thought this was interesting about blocked sites at the Patent Office:

  • Annette on September 23, 2012 10:38 PM:

    OK, I see what I can do. Yes, I will donate to the defense fund.

  • Theobald Smith on September 24, 2012 2:51 AM:

    This is a wonderful character piece, that conveniently leaves out amy mention of what Schwartz actually did.

    People with a legitimate use case don't write bots to dynamically spoof MAC addresses.

    Nor do they "accidentally" reconnect to networks they've been booted off of in the past, when MIT tried to enforce its terms of service.

    is a good source for the facts behind the case.

  • kalpanaceo on September 24, 2012 5:28 AM:

    Informatics Outsourcing is an Offshore Intellectual Property Services company. They are providing Intellectual Property services for Bio Technology, Biochemistry, Drug Discovery, Chemistry, etc

  • jhm on September 24, 2012 7:20 AM:

    Not reallo OT, but ICYMI:

    "Pharmaceutical companies deliberately mislead doctors into prescribing useless and even harmful meds"


  • bigtuna on September 24, 2012 10:25 AM:

    I don't have a dog in this hunt, and from an objective pov, it appears that some of his computer work crossed the line. However, a broader point: Given all the pedophiles, major drug king pins, organized crime, meth dealers, wall street crooks that stole billions, reduced pension values for millions of people, etc., when their deals collpased, etc. that are serving to ravage a swath of the US, The feds go after this guy in a big way?

    REally? This is worthy of federal resources?


  • C Karen Stopford on January 12, 2013 12:16 PM:

    Alas, too late. They offed him.