JSTOR charges universities and other organizations quite heftily for access to its archives, which go back to the 1700s. Bodies such as MIT make the content available to faculty and students on a limited basis, and anything other than personal use is prohibited.
To cut to the chase, here's what the accusations are all about, according to the indictment handed down by the Massachusetts Grand Jury:
"Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to ... break into a restricted computer wiring closet at MIT ... access MIT's network without authorization from a switch within that closet ... connect to JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through MIT's computer network ... use this access to download a major portion of JSTOR's archive onto his computers and computer hard drives ... avoid MIT's and JSTOR's efforts to prevent this massive copying, measures which were directed at users generally and at Swartz's illicit conduct specifically; and ... elude detection and identification ... all with the purpose of distributing a significant proportion of JSTOR's archive through one or more file-sharing sites."
Swartz is being accused of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer (he caused the JSTOR computers to crash due to the load he placed on them). Wow.
This all happened while Swartz was a fellow at -- and I'm not making this up -- Harvard's Center for Ethics! The indictment continues, "He used MIT's computer networks to steal well over 4,000,000 articles from JSTOR. Swartz was not affiliated with MIT as a student, faculty member, or employee or in any other manner other than his and MIT's common location in Cambridge."
At this point you might be wondering what Swartz was up to. According to the indictment, and presumably following the old digital hippie dictum of "information wants to be free," Swartz planned to "liberate" the documents: "Swartz intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through one or more file-sharing sites."
Because Swartz is accused of felonies, he could, in theory, go to jail for 35 years! If he'd killed someone he might be looking at five to 10, but when there are computers and money involved ...
Public sympathy seems to be with Swartz because the mainstream media, not surprisingly, haven't made much, if any, attempt to delve into the intricacies of the case, and Swartz's own creation, Demand Progress, is willfully promoting a hugely and disingenuously simplified version of the truth that completely ignores his actions and paints him as a victim. Even James Jacobs' quote (above) seems like it could easily have been taken out of context.
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