In this digital age, Aaron Swartz was trying to make information more accessible. The programming wizard, who at the age of 14 invented the widely used web feed format Rich Site Summary (RSS), hanged himself on Jan. 11.
He faced 13 felony charges for rapidly downloading several journal pages via the nonprofit site JSTOR — a digital library available to select organizations, including academic and research-based institutions. One possible penalty for his offenses would have been a fine of $1 million and 35 years in prison.
Swartz was a fellow at Harvard when he gained unauthorized access into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Internet network and began downloading the contents of JSTOR’s many journals. Over the course of a month or two in late 2010, Swartz downloaded a total of 4.8 million documents from the site.
Frustrated with JSTOR’s exclusivity, Swartz wanted to make these materials more widely accessible. He intended to divert information away from those isolated institutions and into the hands of the masses.
Now that Swartz’s visionary presence is gone, the question of public access to these invaluable documents is developing. In an era in which most people turn to the Internet for information, why should crucial sites like JSTOR have such strict limitations? Why is the Department of Justice condemning people like Swartz — whom are only interested in spreading information — to penalties that surpass charges for manslaughter?
Prosecutors utilized vague computer hacking laws to focus on Swartz’s violation of JSTOR’s policies. But Swartz never distributed the downloaded articles and JSTOR formally dropped its charges against him. It was the federal prosecutors who continued their unrelenting fight against Swartz’s behavior.
The federal government’s absurd charges against Swartz only go to prove that it is willing to viciously resist any attempts to redistribute online information into the hands of the public.
Last week, Rep. Zoe Lofgren formed a draft bill called Aaron’s Law, which would prevent prosecution built on the “sole basis” of someone violating the terms and policies of any website. If passed, hackers would have to do something more drastic than merely break a website’s policies to be prosecuted, like stealing passwords or overriding electronic locks.
Legislation like Aaron’s Law must be passed in our growing age of digital information. Instead of harping on issues like website policy and copyright law, the government should be directing their energy toward the more glaring problems that exist in hacking and other online fraudulent activities.
Swartz had always been committed to usurping the powers that be. From forming the community “Demand Progress,” a website that helped “win progressive policy changes for ordinary people,” to accessing JSTOR’s wealth of information, Swartz had always wanted to redistribute power to the people.
Now, in the wake of his tragic death, we must recognize his actions as a model for transparency. The federal government should shift away from its relentless cloaking of information and become open to the possibilities of more readily accessible articles and journals. Otherwise, the public might as well just be shrouded in darkness, blankly staring at a computer screen.