On the so-called crimes of Aaron Swartz

Alex Stamos would have served as the expert witness on Aaron Swartz’s side in a trial which won’t now happen, following Swartz’s suicide. (Swartz had been charged by the federal government with having “stolen” over 4 million academic papers from the online archives operated by JSTOR.)

Stamos is no champion of a free internet and his testimony would not have been the expression of an ideological affiliation with Swartz.

I have led the investigation of dozens of computer crimes, from Latvian hackers blackmailing a stock brokerage to Chinese government-backed attacks against dozens of American enterprises. I have investigated small insider violations of corporate policy to the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have responded to break-ins at social networks, e-tailers and large banks. While we are no stranger to pro bono work, having served as experts on EFF vs Sony BMG and Sony vs Hotz, our reports have also been used in the prosecution of at least a half dozen attackers. In short, I am no long-haired-hippy-anarchist who believes that anything goes on the Internet. I am much closer to the stereotypical capitalist-white-hat sellout that the antisec people like to rant about (and steal mail spools from) in the weeks before BlackHat.

Had Stamos testified in the case against Swartz, it’s hard not to wonder whether as a result, the prosecution’s case would have fallen apart.

Stamos writes:

If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were “wrong”, I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as “inconsiderate”. In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35 year sentence.

Professor Lessig will always write more eloquently than I can on prosecutorial discretion and responsibility, but I certainly agree that Aaron’s death demands a great deal of soul searching by the US Attorney who decided to massively overcharge this young man and the MIT administrators who decided to involve Federal law enforcement.

For the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Peter Eckersley writes: Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way. His contributions were numerous, and some of them were indispensable. When we asked him in late 2010 for help in stopping COICA, the predecessor to the SOPA and PIPA Internet blacklist bills, he founded an organization called Demand Progress, which mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign.

Other projects Aaron worked on included the RSS specifications, web.py, tor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron helped launch the Creative Commons. He was a former co-founder at Reddit, and a member of the team that made the site successful. His blog was often a delight.

Aaron’s eloquent brilliance was mixed with a complicated introversion. He communicated on his own schedule and needed a lot of space to himself, which frustrated some of his collaborators. He was fascinated by the social world around him, but often found it torturous to deal with.

For a long time, Aaron was more comfortable reading books than talking to humans (he once told me something like, “even talking to very smart people is hard, but if I just sit down and read their books, I get their most considered and insightful thoughts condensed in a beautiful and efficient form. I can learn from books faster than I can from talking to the authors.”). His passion for the written word, for open knowledge, and his flair for self-promotion, sometimes produced spectacular results, even before the events that proved to be his undoing.

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  1. delia ruhe says:

    How you can steal something from an organization dedicated to offering it for free is beyond me. JSTOR is a databank of out-of-date academic articles — dangerous stuff, to be sure. If you wanna see a cache of hundreds — maybe thousands — of ‘em, just hack my hard drive.