The facts are not in dispute: Mr. Swartz gained unauthorized access to a restricted area at MIT, connected a laptop computer, and downloaded thousands of documents that JSTOR (Journal Storage) archived, with intent to make them freely available on the Internet. Mr. Swartz, as a Harvard research fellow, had a JSTOR account, so his basic access wasn't unlawful, but the mass downloading exceeded his authorizations. And, of course, he had no authorization to tamper with MIT's equipment.
Now, if we were speaking of physical property, what Swartz did would have been considered Burglary (loosely defined as entering the premises of another without the others' consent, with intent to steal or commit a felony therein) and Theft (taking and carrying away the property of another without their consent, with intent to deprive them of the possession of it). Where things get gray is with data, which you can both steal, and leave the holder in possession of. There is precedent for such crimes in the pre-digital era though, such as Theft of Trade Secrets, which established that copying plans or client lists was still stealing.
Plain burglary, without enhancers such as "while armed" is a felony punishable by up to ten years imprisonment in most jurisdictions. Theft is typically classified by the value of the items stolen. If the documents taken by Mr. Swartz exceeded $10,000.00, the potential penalty would also be up to 10 years in prison. So, if one were looking at charges of only one count of Burglary and one of Theft, Swartz would have had "exposure" of up to twenty years in the penitentiary. Since he evidently, per the indictment, gained access to the server closet numerous times, each of which would be a separate count of burglary in the "material world," the Federal prosecutors' decision to issue charges carrying a potential 35 years imprisonment is not such a gross overcharge as has been alleged.
Mr. Swartz may have thought that his public position would shield him from prosecution, or that, given that he escaped prosecution for similar escapades involving the Library of Congress in 2006 and the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database in 2008 he would not be prosecuted this time, but he misjudged.
In point of fact, Swartz was never in danger of going to prison for 35 years. Two days before his death, Federal prosecutors had told Swarz's attorney that Swartz would "have to spend six months in prison and plead guilty to [all] 13 charges if he wanted to avoid going to trial," which, from the point of view of an experienced former prosecutor and defense attorney, is a not at all unreasonable offer. Six months at a probably minimum security institution is about as light as it gets, federally speaking. One expects that the more onerous part of any sentence would have been the couple of years of supervision, which undoubtedly would have included serious restrictions of on-line activity.
As the song says, "If you can't do the time, better not do the crime." Having been around and paying attention during the Vietnam war era, I got disgusted with protesters who committed acts of civil disobedience up to outright sabotage, and, when apprehended, fought tooth and nail to stay out of jail on every imaginable excuse. They wanted to be romantic outlaws, but had no interest in being "prisoners of conscience," and no more did Mr. Swartz, evidently. He also apparently had no interest in making his case a court fight to give his causes a public airing, which would doubtless have happened had he gone to trial.
As for his suicide, I don't always agree with the rubric that suicide is "the coward's way out," but in this case, that judgment seems hard to argue with. Aaron Swartz was a bold Robin Hood of the Information Superhighway, until it appeared that he might have to suffer a bit for his actions. Then, he decided to take himself off the stage. I am not impressed. Let the curtain fall, without applause.
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