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MIT Warned of a JSTOR Death Sentence Due To Swartz 390

theodp writes "The NY Times takes a look at how MIT ensnared Aaron Swartz, but doesn't shed much light on how the incident became a Federal case with Secret Service involvement. Still, the article is interesting with its report that 'E-mails among M.I.T. officials that Tuesday in January 2011 highlight the pressures university officials felt' from JSTOR, which is generally viewed as a good guy in the incident. From the story: 'Ann J. Wolpert, the director of libraries, wrote to Ellen Finnie Duranceau, the official who was receiving JSTOR's complaints: "Has there ever been a situation similar to this when we brought in campus police? The magnitude, systematic and careful nature of the abuses could be construed as approaching criminal action. Certainly, that's how JSTOR views it."' Less than a week later, a Google search reveals, Duranceau notified the MIT community that immediate changes to JSTOR access had to be made lest the University be subjected to a JSTOR 'death sentence.' 'Because JSTOR has recently reported excessive, systematic downloading of articles at MIT,' the post warned, 'we need to add a new layer of access control. This is the only way to prevent recurrence of the abuse and therefore the only way to ensure ongoing access to this valuable resource for the MIT Community.' The post concludes, 'The incidents that prompted this change involved the use of a robot, which is prohibited by JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use. ...Continued access to JSTOR and other resources is dependent on the MIT Community complying with these policies.' Hope you enjoyed that freewheeling culture while it lasted, kids — now Everything is a Crime."
theodp continues " MIT's Wolpert, who was recently named to an advisory board for JSTOR parent Ithaka, also chairs the Management Board of the MIT Press, where her reports from 2008-2010 included JSTOR Managing Director Laura Brown and MIT's Hal Abelson, adding another twist to Abelson's analysis of MIT's involvement in the Swartz tragedy."
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MIT Warned of a JSTOR Death Sentence Due To Swartz

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  • What is this crap? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Garridan ( 597129 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @06:06AM (#42655161)
    Seriously? Death sentence? Yes. They used the words "death sentence" but it was for their access to JSTOR, not anything to do with Swartz. This is not news, this is grasping at straws.
  • by eksith ( 2776419 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @06:20AM (#42655207) Homepage

    JSTOR acted naively, but corrected itself later. MIT acted naively and then stupidly, but realized their mistake too late. Prosecutors acted like prosecutors typically do these days (I.E. tyranically) and a vulnerable kid took the least painful way out.

    Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and Jstor declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, the United States attorney in Boston, decided to press on.

    As in MIT didn't "ensnare" anyone. They first overreacted, but then couldn't reach the reset button before Ortiz et al took over and sent all reservations MIT may have had about pressing on and destroying his life straight to /dev/null .

    The prosecutors killed Swartz. That's it. While I appreciate the details of exactly what happened within MIT, lets not divert attention away to what this story really is. This should actually be looked as a big fat spotlight being shined on our spectaular legal system that values conviction rates over actual decreased crime rates and political gain at the cost of lives.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @06:26AM (#42655225)

    I'll give GP the benefit of the doubt. That summary is a grammatical train wreck.

  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @06:34AM (#42655253)

    Swartz did something wrong, for sure, he used a script to download documents. He was being rude, making the system slower for everybody else.

    The DOJ reaction? Slap a 50 years sentence on him.

    If that's the prosecutor's reaction, she is certainly not competent for the job she does, she should be fired and the bar association should start an investigation on her.

    I think disbarment would be the proper solution. That would be the right level of punishment in her case. She demonstrated very plainly that she doesn't have the understanding of law needed to work on it professionally.

  • by jkflying ( 2190798 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:12AM (#42655393)

    (I can't quite tell: are you simply not familiar with how the US legal system works, or are you deliberately misrepresenting it?)

    mangu is pointing out the fact that it doesn't seem to be a very good system.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:15AM (#42655413)

    We have an adversarial legal system: the prosecutor throws what he can get away with at the defendant, the defense attorney tries to defend against it, and the judge and the jury make a decision. If the prosecutor overreaches, the case will collapse very quickly.

    You are basically right in what you write, except...

    Even in your adversarial system, there is neither a reason nor an expectation that the prosecutor should initially be making what were basically frivolous claims that go beyond all sane reason. Sure enough a prosecutor will initially often enough be asking for more than is strictly warranted, but 35 years for using a script to download some files that were intentionally freely accessible within the uni network? That is like asking for the death penalty in a case where someone slapped someone else during a barroom brawl, or something like that. That woman needs a healthy dose of "welcome to reality". Which, in the opinion of many fine and upstanding citizens, she could best get while spending quality time at home after being relieved of a job that is apparently beyond her professional and personal level of competence.

  • by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:26AM (#42655453)

    You forgot the bit that comes before the trial, where the prosecutor makes terrifying threats in an effort to intimidate the suspect into a guilty plea in the hope of leniency, regardless of actual guilt or likely outcome if it had gone to trial.

  • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:35AM (#42655491) Journal

    All they needed to do is change the focus to make it into a decent FA and being a nice guy allow me to do so:

    If MLK or any of the other freedom fighters of the 60s were to pull that same shit today they would have all their rights stripped away as EVERYTHING is a felony now.

    Now THAT should have been the focus of TFA, Go to some occupy protest? You end up on a list of possible terrorists and if you are arrested they will pile on as many charges as it takes to make it a felony. Go to some rally and hold up a little sign? Same thing, if the PTBs decide to break it up a good portion of your rights will be stripped away. Do you know how many homeless single mothers we have because of the "zero tolerance" crap they passed in the 90s?If you get busted for pretty much anything in many states including protesting you will end up being able to get ZERO help for the rest of your life, in fact a fucking illegal will have more help than you will, you'll have pretty much zero rights and the cops will fuck with you at will for the rest of your life. "do the crime do the time" simply no longer exists as its "Do a crime do a life sentence as a second class citizen"

    It was THIS kind of bullshit that killed the kid, not JSTOR or any other corp. Sure corps now have Godlike powers but those Godlike powers are granted them by a broken corrupted system that has turned into a giant revolving door with so much conflict of interest its not even funny.

  • by coastwalker ( 307620 ) <[moc.liamtoh] [ta] [reklawtsaoca]> on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:36AM (#42655495) Homepage

    The final outcome of this story is unfortunate and appears to condemn the American Criminal Justice system more than anything else.

    Aaron did not do something without consequence however. He broke a trust in a club (People on campus) and spoiled the party for the members of that club. Free access had been granted to members of the club and his actions took that away. The club members are not trusted anymore and have to go through authentication to get at the data now because of his actions.

    When you look around at society most of the petty unpleasantness of it all happens because someone was greedy, stupid or criminal. It is a shame that Aaron contributed to this slow slide into the straightjacket, whatever the justification.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:38AM (#42655503)

    That is terrorism. Literally.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:42AM (#42655511)

    Copyright violation should never be a criminal offense. It should be purely civil. Society already grants these people a monopoly for what amounts to forever, and now they want us to enforce it with our criminal justice system as well?

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:44AM (#42655519)

    It sometimes feels like Les Miserables comes to life.

  • by Jade_Wayfarer ( 1741180 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @07:53AM (#42655545)
    Well, let's not get into numbers far - even if Swartz would be found guilty only on one charge (and quite possibly more than one), he would still have to spend some time in prison with much more serious offenders. And, statistically speaking, his chances of acquittal were dim, to say the least. Well, OK, prisons in US are all happy gardens of bunnies-and-rainbows, and all inmates (and, more importantly, guards) are perfect gentlemen with bow ties and monocles. Staying in prison would help Swartz both physically and psychically... in some perfect fantasy world. But that's still not the point.

    Quick quiz: when he gets out he is viewed by potential employers as a) a brilliant young man, who just made some wrong decisions in the past, but it's all forgiven and forgotten; or b) a felon, found guilty of several computer-related crimes? Guess which viewpoint would be prevalent? And what perspectives such future holds for him? Plus, even if he would spend not 35, but "only" 3-5 years in prison - how would he catch up with current technologies? Restore his skills and social connections? Do you want to be considered a friend of a known felon? So how many friends would he still have after this? So it's not the case of 50, 35 or even 5 years of prison - it's the case of maybe not ruined, but seriously maimed life anyway.

    And "if the prosecutor overreaches, the case will collapse very quickly" - if that's true, why did 97% of accused in federal cases plead guilty in 2011? Not one case of "prosecutor overreach", right? Total transparency, responsibility and fairness all around, and every prosecutor is really afraid of his case collapsing, sure... in some perfect fantasy world.
  • by fredprado ( 2569351 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @08:10AM (#42655617)

    (3) 35 years is the theoretical maximum when you total up all the charges with maximum penalties. He would likely have faced a few years in prison if found guilty of all charges, about the same as in many European countries.

    But he could get 35 years in prison, especially if the judge wanted to make an example of him, which happens more than you would believe. The fact that he could get this ridiculously draconian sentence, which is more than the maximum time permitted for anyone to serve for any crime in many countries, is enough to show how rotten US justice system is.

    Furthermore the fact that the prosecutor can throw the whole book on him and charge him of everything he can think about does not mean she is forced to do so. That is the problem with your "adversarial legal system". Prosecutors go out of their way to intimidate and force people into deals, regardless of their culpability, and many many people take those deals forfeiting their right to defend themselves because of the chance of draconian penalties if they do not.

  • by Zontar The Mindless ( 9002 ) <plasticfish DOT info AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @08:35AM (#42655731) Homepage

    You think this is any different now? You are aware that the FBI bugged MLK, aren't you? And that the guy who assassinated him likely had help from the Feds, don't you?

    Only the names have changed.

  • by abirdman ( 557790 ) * <{abirdman} {at} {}> on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:11AM (#42655887) Homepage Journal
    Thank you sir, you are completely correct. Corps have convinced government at every level that their needs-- for protection of future profits, for protection of trade secrets, for maintaining their own security rubrics, for protecting their IP)-- make it necessary they be able to interpret and prosecute their own lines of inquiry, sanctions, and punishments against citizens. Government at every level (and on both sides of the aisle) is jumping at the chance to hand them anything they ask for, from SOPA passed in secret, to pepper spray for college protesters, to absurd prison terms for the unregenerate such as Aaron Swartz. It's shocking and unsustainable, but it's happening.
  • by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:31AM (#42656017)

    I really don't understand. JSTOR is public repository, taxpayer funded. Schwartz is a tax payer. Where does the damage come from which justifies 35 years in jail?

    It's not that the kid did that much harm, it's that this prosecutorial team saw a chance to put a "computer-crime" multi-decade "easy" conviction (read: student that can't afford a good legal defense) on their resumes for advancement of their careers.

    Many, many US prosecutors and DAs don't consider for even a second the lives they destroy as they seek to advance their careers. For some it's fixation/obsession on their career goals that blinds them, for others, they are simply sociopaths who lack any capacity for empathy or sympathy for those they unjustly victimize, even enjoying the suffering of their victims.

    They are much like the brutal, violent, abusive cops seen in so many YT videos, and like the cops, have a culture that views such abuses as normal and acts to shield/protect their own.


  • by fearofcarpet ( 654438 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:37AM (#42656059)

    A friend of mine was convicted of a crime 20 years ago. Long story short, he slept with the sheriff's daughter (in a small town) who had to that point claimed to her father to be saving it for marriage. Now he is a sex offender. Sure he made some bad choices (he was 17 at the time), but now he not only has a criminal record, but a sex offense. It drove him out of the city, out of the state, and eventually nearly underground. It made it almost impossible for him to get an education and a job, buy a house, start a family--all those normal things we take for granted that in fact stem from our "inalienable" rights. And that was 20 years ago--nowadays that small-town attitude is the norm for anyone trying to express an opinion that The Man finds unsavory. Once the system gets a hold of you, you're lucky if it only ruins your life in the short term.

  • Les Miserables (Score:4, Insightful)

    by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:37AM (#42656063) Journal
    Valjean's descent from peasant to yellow card carrying convict, after serving 14 years in the gallows for bread theft & repeated escape attempts, is an odd parallel at first glance. In reflection; Both Schwartz and Valjean intentionally broke the law of the land, both offenses seem rather petty to most of their peers, and both faced draconian punishments. Of course, one man was stealing food for his starving sister and the other gent was engaged in idealistic hactivism, but I can see how prosecutorial discretion has the ability to continue our society's descent to a place where being a felon is so ubiquitous it's no longer a Big Red F.
  • by sesshomaru ( 173381 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:46AM (#42656111) Journal

    Trials are an extremely important part of the American legal system. The right to a fair trial by a jury of your peers is the bedrock of the American legal system. I'm not convinced the practice of plea bargaining, which is deliberately intended to short circuit this system, was ever a good idea.

    Even if a plea bargain is a good idea in some cases, the way its used these days to create "Trial by Prosecutor" is absolutely ghastly. In other words, the prosecutor uses certain flaws of our legal system that are unrelated to Constitutional requirements (the costs, for example, that will bankrupt an ordinary person, and the fact that public defenders are often unqualified and routinely mishandle cases) to dispense with Trial by Jury altogether, even if the option still technically exists (violating the spirit of the law if not the letter of the law).

    Plea bargains have been common for more than a century, but lately they have begun to put the trial system out of business in some courtrooms. By one count, fewer than one in 40 felony cases now make it to trial, according to data from nine states that have published such records since the 1970s, when the ratio was about one in 12. The decline has been even steeper in federal district courts. -- Sentencing Shift Gives New Leverage to Prosecutors []

    Besides this, we now have a similar situation in Civil Trials, where binding arbitration agreements are forced on parties as soon as they try to get involved in any commercial transaction.

    What all this ends up being is an end run around the Constitution. If the Constitution had intended Trial by Jury to be rare, and most cases to be decided by a single appointed official, they would have set up the Constitution that way. In fact, many of the people involved in setting up the United States had bad memories of the Court of Star Chamber [], in which no one was allowed to argue their cases and arbitrary rulings were the norm.

    If one thing should come out of the Aaron Swartz case, and one thing only, it is this: The rules for civil disobedience in this country have changed. With juries out of the picture, stunts like what Swartz pulled at MIT are far more difficult ways to create legal precedent. Which is important because Civil Disobedience against unjust laws has a long history of moving change in this country when the legislative process was moving slowly or not at all (or in the wrong direction, as it is now).

    Now, there were other periods in history where civil disobedience was extremely dangerous, which led to more extreme forms of civil disobedience than peaceful protests. The political movements in previous centuries knew what kind of justice awaited them in the courts, so they used the gun or the bomb to make their points, rather than sit ins or other forms of peaceful protest. Returning to those bad old days is honestly not something I'm looking forward to.

  • by TapeCutter ( 624760 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:48AM (#42656127) Journal
    Just because the prosecutors were wrong does not mean Swartz was right.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @09:52AM (#42656151)

    Internet bullies have absolutely no real power over anyone. At all.

    The government is a different matter.

  • by luis_a_espinal ( 1810296 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @10:02AM (#42656229) Homepage

    Just because the prosecutors were wrong does not mean Swartz was right.

    This. Thank you. It is unfortunate that Swartz took his life. He was treated unfairly and with the utmost unjustice, ironically by the DOJ. And he was a brilliant individual. But he did commit a wrong. It does not justify what was done to him (which ultimately led him to kill himself.)

    But /. fans need to get this in their thick, stupid, avant-garde-wannabe skulls. He was not on the right, nor what he did - in this specific issue - constituted something positive or promoting of individual rights. This is a criticism of him, rest in peace, on this specific incident. It does not constitute an indictment on Swartz, the person as a whole, nor does it constitute a justification for what the authoritities did to him.

    He might have been abused like Valjean, but he was not Valjean. On this issue, he was not.

    OTH, the DOJ certainly played the Javert macabre part and relished on it.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @10:18AM (#42656353) Journal

    he would still have to spend some time in prison with much more serious offenders

    That's the law.

    If you're going to fall back on the "its the law", you have to enforce the law all the time. But our justice system has discretion built into it. That's why e.g. John Corzine is still a free man. But why does Corzine benefit from that discretion and Swartz does not? Wealth and power, obviously. That's the problem here. Justice isn't blind.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @11:02AM (#42656751)
    If companies are people, the state should be able to execute them.
  • by luis_a_espinal ( 1810296 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @11:04AM (#42656779) Homepage

    Just because the prosecutors were wrong does not mean Swartz was right.

    This. Thank you. It is unfortunate that Swartz took his life. He was treated unfairly and with the utmost unjustice, ironically by the DOJ. And he was a brilliant individual. But he did commit a wrong. It does not justify what was done to him (which ultimately led him to kill himself.)

    What was the wrong he committed? He was allowed access to the documents he downloaded. The only wrong was that instead of sitting there clicking on each one and clicking save as, he had a script access them and save them. But as to the content itself, he was allowed to have access to it and to save it. Instead of JSTOR, you would have thought the RIAA was behind this.

    That. Usage of robots was/is prohibited by JSTOR. Whether that makes sense or not is not the issue. If someone doesn't like a service's TOS, the correct thing is not to use that service. It is not a ZOMG-kill-babies, but it is still a wrong.

    Obviously, however, the DOJ's javirtistic response was completely unjustified. Considering that all the WS fat cats that almost drove us to the cliff are not in jail, or the people behind unmasking Valerie Plame's cover as a CIA operative (*cough* Karl *cough* Rove *cough*) still remain unpunished, the DOJ's handling of this petty case is an obscene miscarriage of the law beyond description.

  • Bull (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @11:16AM (#42656935) Homepage Journal

    "There's a good book by ex-FBI cop & criminal lawyer Dale Carson who explains these people have run out of big time criminals to prosecute, and so now the justify their existence by filling jails with poor saps who meet this criteria,"

    In a word, that's bull. The world is filled with big time criminals. The problem is that they are "too big to prosecute". Look at HSBC. They laundered money, knowingly, for drug dealers, terrorists, and Iran (helping to fund their nuclear program).

    Even after a full investigation, and HSBC admitting to criminal activity to the tune of billions of dollars, wanna take a guess how many people went to jail?

    If you guessed anything other than ZERO, you are wrong. HSBC was fined 1.9 Billion Dollars, and then let off the hook. HSBC, incidentally, can make up for that fine over 4 weeks with some slightly more risky trading, and perhaps charging their customers a few pennies more per transaction.

    The point is: Prosecutors don't go after "big targets" to make their name, because it's much, much tougher to win a case against an organization that can spend more in lawyers than the entire GDP of your district.

    As a result, there have been no prosecutions of anyone guilty of market manipulation for the "Great Recession", there have been no prosecutions for "robosigning foreclosures", there have been no prosecutions for insider trading, there have been no prosecutions for LIBOR, there have been no prosecutions for HSBC.

    So, Prosecutors spend their time being High School Bullies, going after targets they know they can win because the little guy has no resources to fight. That's why we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and our jails are filled with petty criminals -- people busted for a few ounces of Pot. But the real criminals drive in limos.

  • by bzipitidoo ( 647217 ) <> on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @11:42AM (#42657347) Journal

    You're so sure Mr. Swartz was not in the right that you preemptively call everyone who disagrees with you stupid, huh?

    No, it is publishers who are in the wrong. If you think JSTOR is some kind of saintly, charitable effort, and point to their non-profit status as evidence, I suggest you take a harder look. Research publishing is a huge racket. We, the people, pay for a great deal of research, and then allow these publishers to lock it all up, charge huge fees for access, and bless the whole affair by calling it privatization. That they do it on behalf of a few school rather than for themselves, and that the access fees are in the form of tuition rather than straight up fees, does not make it any less unfair. JSTOR has willingly aided that injustice, providing cover for the schools, until prodded hard.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @01:26PM (#42658515)

    but I can see how prosecutorial discretion has the ability to continue our society's descent to a place where being a felon is so ubiquitous it's no longer a Big Red F.

    Oh, don't worry, they'd never let it get watered down to that point. They'll make sure "felon" still makes people think they're horrible people. Kind of like how they label people "sex offender" for a ton of crimes that have nothing to do with sex, but most people would still see that as a mark of a pervert, rather than someone who got drunk and peed in public.

  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @01:41PM (#42658711)
    No, it sounds like JSTOR was urging MIT to clamp down on JSTOR access, not push to prosecute Aaron.

    Kind of like if you own a chain of retail stores, and you tell a store manager to crack down on shoplifting or you're going to fire him, and the store manager shoots the next shoplifter he sees. You didn't tell him to go that far overboard, or shoot anyone, or shoot that one specifically.
  • by Impy the Impiuos Imp ( 442658 ) on Tuesday January 22, 2013 @03:06PM (#42659771) Journal

    The purpose of "everything is illegal" has been well-known for thousands of years -- nobody can do daily activities to keep themselves alive without kickbacks, and anyone uppity can be easily yanked.

    History should give no confidence whatsoever that democracy and freedom of speech have more than a minor impact on this. If anything, it can be worse in some ways since some of the lower-level officials don't feel themselves corrupt, but rather fancy themselves helpful, playing the position of useful idiot for higher officials who do take donations, legal or otherwise. "I'll sic this self-righteous regulator...unless a hefty ransom is paid?"

"It ain't over until it's over." -- Casey Stengel