Does information really want to be free? *Should* it be free? These questions came to my mind upon learning that Aaron Swartz–founder and director of Demand Progress, co-founder of Reddit, and founder of watchdog.net, a site dedicated to making it easier for people to locate and retrieve government data–was arrested yesterday for allegedly downloading too many journal articles from JSTOR. From The Boston Globe:
Aaron Swartz, a Cambridge web entrepreneur and political activist who has lobbied for the free flow of information on the Internet, was charged in federal court with hacking into a subscription-based archive system at MIT and stealing more than 4 million articles, including scientific and academic journals.
Swartz, 24, who at the time of the alleged hacking in fall 2010 was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, was charged in an indictment unsealed yesterday with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. He faces up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Although just 24, Swartz has long been an activist for the free flow of information, and has published many articles decrying the influence of corporate money on nonprofit institutions, the media, and public opinion in general. Until recently Swartz was a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. It’s not yet clear whether Swartz meant to make the JSTOR documents he downloaded freely distributable to the public or if he planned only to study those documents as part of his ongoing research on the influence of corporate money on institutions. You can read further details about Swartz’s indictment on Kottke here.
Swartz’s case may not be as easy to get behind as that of Ai Wei Wei, whose ongoing oppression at the hands of the Chinese government has appalled and fascinated free speech activists and the international artworld for a number of months now. Swartz’s actions fall into that grey area of ethical (and obviously legal) conduct that, for some, makes his current predicament harder to rally behind. But to me his case signifies ideas no less vital for us to consider than those represented by Ai Wei Wei’s situation – and it’s happening in the United States. If you want to follow Swartz’ case, or take action (which, not surprisingly, means going to a website and signing a petition), go to Demand Progress, the site for whom Swartz currently serves as director.