U.S. legal system’s crusade against file-sharing now has a body count

by Max Miller –  Staff Writer – nmiller@unca.edu

Aaron Swartz was found dead on Jan. 11. He hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26.

Swartz was one of the developers responsible for early RSS technology, which allows users to subscribe to updates from websites and blogs. He was also a major player in the creation of Reddit, a site for sharing links and news that bills itself as the “front page of the Internet.”

Swartz committed suicide after he was charged with multiple felonies, including unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, wire fraud and computer fraud, after he downloaded about 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, an online database that provides access to millions of scholarly articles to students of member universities. You may recogniz  e JSTOR because UNC Asheville is among its members, and its services are available through the Ramsey Library website.

Swartz downloaded the articles from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a rented laptop. The massive downloads caused MIT servers to crash, alerting JSTOR to Swartz’s activity. Swartz surrendered the hard drive containing the plundered articles to JSTOR, and the organization chose not to pursue legal action. It was the U.S. government that viewed Swartz’s actions as criminal, and launched a crusade against him which ended with him potentially facing millions in fines, and decades in prison.

Swartz’s death could have been avoided if the U.S. government had a less archaic attitude about downloading digital media. Current laws cause minor offenses to register as multiple felonies, and the repercussions are staggering.

But it is readily apparent that in the case of Swartz, the act is not theft in the traditional sense. Swartz accessed articles, albeit in massive quantities, that he legally had the right to download. Should he have put them online for free, as most people speculate was his goal, it would still not be stealing from JSTOR, which is likely why the organization did not pursue further legal action.

Theft would constitute Swartz permanently removing the articles somehow. While Swartz’s motives and activities were suspicious, treating them as a massive robbery is unrealistic. This is not the first time the U.S. judicial system has dealt out absurd fines because of unclear perceptions of what theft means in a digital age.

Beginning around 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America began suing private citizens over illegally downloaded music, leading to infamous cases like that of Jammie Thomas-Rasset, a Minnesota woman who was fined $222,000 for downloading 24 songs. In case you do not have a calculator handy, that comes out to about $9,250 per song. And this was not the highest fine Thomas-Rasset was charged. Appeals of her case throughout the past few years found juries awarding the RIAA $1.5 million to $1.92 million in damages, fines which were reduced by the court to $54,000 both times, or $2,250 per song, before a 2012 verdict reinstated the original $222,000 one.

Supposing we agree downloading copyrighted material for free is immoral and should be punished, it is still startling to see courts holding up such gratuitous fines. The government is enforcing an outdated sense of morality on the issue of sharing digital media, a new and confusing topic that needs to be assessed on its own terms.

This is further made clear by the felony charges against Swartz which are defined under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The act intends to protect people from crimes like hacking, identity theft and other violations that could be committed through unethical use of computers. However, the act is vague and can be used to interpret violations of an online terms of service agreement as a violation of national law.

This is why a case like Swartz’s, which could have began and ended with JSTOR, was brought to national attention even though Swartz had no intentions of harming anyone in the manner that the law is meant to prevent. It is also why members of the House Judiciary Committee have already begun proposing amendments to the law in order to prevent another tragedy of this nature.

While Swartz’s activities may have not been entirely moral, the legal response was disproportionate. Whether the crime is viewed as theft or form of hacking, it is clear that the current mindset the justice system has about these cases is overbearing. The system’s ignorance now has a body count. Hopefully it will not have to grow higher before something changes.

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