Aaron Swartz’s death sparks cries for computer crime law overhaul

NOAH BERGER/REUTERS - Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. Internet activist and programmer Swartz, who helped create an early version of RSS and later played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill in Congress, has died at age 26, an apparent suicide, New York authorities said January 13, 2013. REUTERS/Noah Berger (UNITED STATES - Tags: PORTRAIT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY OBITUARY)

Following the death of RSS-co-founder Aaron Swartz, hackers from Anonymous on Sunday claimed credit for posting messages to Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web sites commemorating the life of Swartz and calling for an overhaul of computer crime laws. Hayley Tsukayama writes:

Swartz, 26, was an outspoken advocate of open information and had been embroiled in a legal battle over digital copyright for scraping articles off of the JSTOR academic article database. He hanged himself Friday at his apartment in Brooklyn.

More tech stories

Curious about if anyone actually read your tweets? Twitter now opens its analytics dashboard to all users.

Curious about if anyone actually read your tweets? Twitter now opens its analytics dashboard to all users.

You can see exactly how many people viewed and engaged with your tweets, the demographic breakdown of your followers, etc.

Technology lessons from Ferguson

Here are three ways Ferguson is changing the national debate over technology.

‘Hello Kitty’ in space

‘Hello Kitty’ in space

Researchers at Tokyo University have launched a “Hello Kitty” figurine into space and recorded images of it in order to demonstrate “a completely different way to use satellites,” according to Toshiki Tanaka.

In addition to co-authoring the technology behind RSS, which alerts users to real-time updates on Web sites, Swartz also played an early role at Reddit, and founded the advocacy group Demand Progress. He believed that the articles on JSTOR should be more widely available, particularly as many were funded by public money. He hacked into the database’s systems and downloaded articles using a computer concealed in an MIT closet.

Once found, Swartz was charged with felony hacking charges, which could have carried a decades-long sentence. His trial was set to start this spring and his attempts to reach a plea-bargain with the government, the Wall Street Journal reported, had recently fallen apart.

In the messages Sunday, the group called for an overhaul of intellectual property and computer crime laws. The group also said Swartz’s death should be a rallying point for Internet freedom advocates. “We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered Internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all,” the group said.

In an update to the messages, which have since been taken down, the group said it does not blame MIT for Swartz’s death and apologized for using its sites as a stage for its messages.

The messages were posted shortly after MIT President Rafael Reif wrote a letter to students, alumni and other members of the school’s community to say that it would look into the role MIT played in Swartz’s case.

Tim Lee writes about Swartz’s impact on the tech world, and calls Swartz an “American hero:”

Swartz took an aggressive, perhaps even reckless, course in his promotion of public access to information. The federal courts lock public documents behind a paywall on a Web site called PACER. When the judiciary announced a pilot program to provide free PACER access to users at certain public libraries, Swartz saw an opportunity. Using credentials from one of the libraries, he used an automated program to rapidly “scrape” documents from the PACER site. He got more than 2 million before the courts noticed what was happening and shut down the libraries program.

Swartz used a similar tactic to liberate academic articles from the JSTOR database. He logged onto the network of MIT, which has a JSTOR subscription, and began rapidly downloading articles. When MIT cut off access to its wireless network, Swartz snuck into an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly into the campus network.

This last stunt led to his indictment on federal computer hacking charges. All told, the charges against him could have led to decades of prison time. Swartz’s trial was scheduled to start in the spring.

Harvard law professor Larry Lessig was a friend and mentor to Swartz. In a Saturday blog post, Lessig reported that the costs of his defense were close to depleting Swartz’s financial resources. Lessig is in a position to know; his wife started a legal defense fund for Swartz last September. Lessig says Swartz was “unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge.”

As I said at the time of Swartz’s arrest, his actions were foolish and some punishment was probably appropriate. But he probably shouldn’t have been the subject of a criminal indictment and he certainly shouldn’t have faced felony charges.

“It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan,” Graham wrote. “In those countries, people color inside the lines.” The article is accompanied by a picture of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, prior to the founding of Apple, experimenting with a “blue box,” a device that tricks the phone system into allowing free phone calls. Wozniak says he once used a blue box to call the Pope...

I worry that Swartz’s prosecution is a sign that America is gradually losing the sense of humor that has made it the home of the world’s innovators and misfits. A generation ago, we hailed Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg as a hero. Today, our government throws the book at whistleblowers for leaking much less consequential information.

Swartz was pronounced dead Friday evening at his home in Brooklyn, according to the Associated Press:

Aaron Swartz, 26, hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment weeks before he was to go on trial on accusations that he stole millions of journal articles from an electronic archive in an attempt to make them freely available. If convicted, he faced decades in prison and a fortune in fines.

He was pronounced dead Friday evening at home in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, said Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for New York’s chief medical examiner.

Swartz was “an extraordinary hacker and activist,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group based in California wrote in a tribute on its home page.

He “did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way,” the tribute said.

Swartz was a prodigy who as a young teenager helped create RSS, a family of Web feed formats used to gather updates from blogs, news headlines, audio and video for users. He co-founded a company that merged with the social news website Reddit, which was later sold to Conde Nast, as well as the political action group Demand Progress, which campaigns against Internet censorship.

Among Internet gurus, Swartz was considered a pioneer of efforts to make online information freely available.

“Playing Mozart’s Requiem in honor of a brave and brilliant man,” tweeted Carl Malamud, an Internet public domain advocate who believes in free access to legally obtained files.

Sign up today to receive #thecircuit, a daily roundup of the latest tech policy news from Washington and how it is shaping business, entertainment and science.

 
Read what others are saying