Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Goodbye, Aaron Swartz (and Alfred Anaya)

It's been a bit hard to get motivated to post in my blog recently, what with the lack of readers and all. But I'm getting various activist emails, and there are such important discussions going on about... stuff. It'd be a shame not to say something...

So hey! Let's talk about overzealous federal prosecutors, shall we?

First up, the case of Aaron Swartz has been on my mind a lot, because in some ways he reminds me of myself. Aaron was a former internet activist and computer genius, who, for reasons that he never disclosed, downloaded over a million academic papers from JSTOR, a repository of scholarly knowledge. Although students at MIT, including Aaron, have free access to JSTOR, they are not allowed to download files in bulk. Aaron was eventually caught and arrested for it, and lost his copied files.

Ultimately JSTOR decided they were willing to drop the matter and so were state prosecutors, but then the Feds appeared and made his life hell for the next two years, as they piled on charge after charge and restricted his freedoms. As prosecution attorney Carmen Ortiz explained, "Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million." I heard that 97% of federal cases result in guilty pleas, and that out of the cases that go to trial, 90% of defendants are found guilty. I hear that defending against a federal case is unbelievably expensive, and the risk of obscene jail time so dangerous, that defendants are basically forced to take a plea "bargain" regardless of the merits of their case.

But Aaron steadfastly refused to accept a plea bargain, and for reasons that are unclear, committed suicide January 11, 2013.

Many activist groups and individuals (including myself) believe that the law under which Swartz was charged, the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, is both unreasonable and dangerous and needs to be amended. It basically makes a crime out of violating the terms of service of a web site, which is crazy since people do it all the time. Ever set up a Facebook account for someone under 13? That's against the CFAA so it's technically a Federal Crime. Some websites restrict the minimum age to 18, and there are any number of other "bad bahaviors" which are against website terms of service--none of which should actually be a crime.

So Demand Progress (with which Aaron used to be involved) and other activist organizations have been lobbying congress to pass "Aaron's law", which would limit the scope of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and exclude "crimes" that are nothing more than a breach of contract. But other congresspeople, as if in response, instead are attempting to expand the CFAA to make it even more draconian.

In response, Demand Progress (and me!) are requesting people to call their congresspeople and have the CFAA limited, not expanded; click the picture for more information.

Besides that, if you are in science or academia, I would urge you to publish your academic papers in open-access journals. (I don't understand why you wouldn't in the first place, unless you're paid extra for preventing the general public from seeing your research.) Certainly as a non-academic, I often like to Google for the latest algorithms--but I ignore any papers that are marked "$15 to download", and sometimes I read "drafts" that are free rather than the final paper. Let me put it this way: I publish MY research freely; it's a nice club, you should join!

I would also like to draw your attention to the case of Alfred Anaya, who was found guilty and given a prison sentence similar to what you would expect for a murderer--for doing something that, although a bit fishy, is technically not a crime. Apparently, he is being punished not for what he did but what he saw and heard--which actually wasn't very much at all. Click here for the gruesome details.

Or, if you'd prefer to read a more personal perspective on what it's like to be squashed by federal prosecutors, read this account from a former girlfriend of Aaron Swartz.

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