Information May Want to Be Free But Those Who Liberate It Can be Indicted

One of the most unusual criminal hacking prosecutions recently began when a Massachusetts federal grand jury returned an indictment against Aaron Swartz, a fellow at, of all places, Harvard University’s Center for Ethics. The four count criminal indictment, available here, charges Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. It also seeks forfeiture of property involved in or gained through the criminal enterprise.  What is interesting about this case is not merely that it charges a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics with numerous serious felonies but what precisely Swartz is charged with stealing — 4.8 million academic articles from the proprietary JSTOR database. Since academics generally support the free dissemination of information, believing strongly that information should be free, Swartz’s action might be seen as part of a larger effort at data liberation, intended to free information from being locked up in proprietary databases, available only to those affiliated with institutions having the ability to pay. In fact, the indictment itself indicates that JSTOR charges institutions heavy subscription fees of up to $50,000 annually for access to its database of academic articles. Continue reading