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15 January 2013, 11:55

Calls for internet law reform and open access after activist suicide

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Zoom Aaron Swartz in 2009
Source: Nick Gray
The funeral of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old internet activist who killed himself last week, is taking place today. The activist's death has led to calls for reform of internet law and more open access to publicly held information. Swartz was due to go to court in April to face thirteen charges including wire fraud and computer fraud after he downloaded 4.8 million scientific and literary papers from the subscription service JSTOR via MIT's open campus network and MIT's JSTOR subscription.

The felony charges could have led to thirty-five years in prison. Although the authorities were, according to the Wall Street Journal, only seeking seven years and were prepared to plea bargain down to six to eight months if Swartz pleaded guilty to all charges, he was not prepared to do any time in jail. Many feel that the threat of decades in jail may have contributed to Swartz's state of mind; he had previously documented his depression.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says the case: "shines a spotlight on profound flaws in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)". It points out that the law is so vaguely worded that it allows prosecutors to charge violations of terms of service as criminal acts as they took place "without authorisation". The EFF also points out that the penalties for those acts of access without authorisation are punishable by up to five years in prison and ten in the case of repeat offences; other parts of the CFAA include punishments ranging "up to ten years, twenty years or even life in prison". The US government is also looking at increasing the reach of the CFAA and making the penalties more severe. It is in light of this that the EFF is calling on people to write to their representatives.

Swartz, who was a co-creator of the RSS 1.0 specification and co-founder of Reddit, had turned his energies to freeing documents for the wider web. His first project, and brush with the law, in 2008 saw him take on the PACER court document system and extract 18 million pages (around 20% of the documents) from the pay-walled system by using a Perl script to step through case numbers. The FBI investigated at that time but did not press charges.

On Twitter, the #pdftribute hashtag has emerged as part of the open access movement's response to Swartz's death. Academics and other writers are asked to publish their papers and make them available by tweeting a URL to retrieve them with #pdftribute. Twitter is being scraped by for all mentions of this tag, and plans are being made to crawl and archive the documents being listed. Another group of activists, Archive Team, has created JSTOR liberator as a protest; this is a bookmarklet which allows JSTOR users to "liberate" a paper while reading it. Use of the bookmarklet is a violation of the terms of service of JSTOR and the developers describe its use as "a tiny bit of civil disobedience".

The hacktivist collective Anonymous also took action in the days following Swartz's death, taking over two servers at MIT to leave a memorial (Pastebin copy) to him. A likely longer lasting memorial has been created by the Internet Archive which opened the Aaron Swartz Collection to curate a digital archive of Swartz's life and works.


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