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The suicide earlier this month of internet activist Aaron Swartz, 26, has, in tragic fashion, highlighted lacunae in the laws governing electronic copyright and computer crime, which he spent his life campaigning against. He was a prodigy. At 14, he helped to develop the Really Simple Syndication (RSS) standard, which distributed blog posts, working with Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium. Swartz later collaborated with Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard on the Creative Commons copyright distribution system and then co-founded a company, Infogami, which eventually became Reddit, the popular crowd-sourced news site. As the curriculum vitae indicates, he was an advocate of open access. His non-profit organisation, Demand Progress, was one of the spearheads of a successful concerted protest by 115 million websites against the US’ proposed Stop Online Piracy Act, a broadly structured law that would have allowed the censorship and, indeed, the deletion of entire websites.
Swartz faced 13 felony charges of computer fraud, wire fraud, etc under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (1984). Conviction would have meant a jail sentence of up to 35 years as well as fines amounting to $1 million. Two days before his suicide, US Federal prosecutors refused to allow plea-bargaining to reduce possible penalties. He suffered from depression and this unfavourable development may have helped push him over the edge. He had allegedly misused a connection at MIT to download several million academic papers from JSTOR, or Journal Storage, a non-profit digital storage system freely accessible to students at over 7,000 institutions around the world. He intended to put those papers online to be shared by even wider audiences. (Authors of academic papers don’t receive royalties, but JSTOR charges a subscription fee from institutions.) JSTOR not only dropped charges, it made the papers Swartz had downloaded freely available to the public and has issued a condolence statement. So has the MIT president. Some academics made their opinions clear by sharing papers online under the hashtag #pdftribute in the wake of the tragedy.
More poignantly, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s response, “Wanderers in this crazy world, we have lost a mentor, a wise elder. Let us weep”, illustrates his deep personal grief. Another mentor, Professor Lessig, bitterly wrote: “Anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES [sic] is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.” Many thousands have signed a petition, now with the White House, demanding the removal of the Federal prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, for “overreach”. But the lessons are broader. Laws are obviously badly drafted if they cannot distinguish between malicious fraud and hacking for gain, and a “crime” that had no victims and no profit motive. The outrage arising from this case may actually compel the US government to redraft that archaic law. Since most electronic copyright laws are modelled on US legislation, it could have a beneficial global effect if it prompted other governments to redraft similar legislation. If so, Swartz’s death would be slightly less pointless since it would help to achieve what he couldn’t in life.