Sita's Ramblings

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Aaron was 26 when he killed himself.
All seem to agree that he was a bright boy with good sense; he knew a lot of the techheads and worked on, for instance, the RSS specifications and later on war-chalking.
He BELIEVED in the stuff. He did it, didn't just talk about it.
He used the MIT servers to log into JSTOR and download academic articles. Being a Stanford dropout, he would not have had access to these from home, but MIT have a generous policy of allowing access from those PHYSICALLY on their campus, for up to 4 days a month. President of MIT on Aaron's death

He was clearly an activist. He taught himself to program by asking how it was done. He went to conferences and learned from the speakers. He got involved. He did the stuff.He wasn't jsut some "script-kiddy".

Interested in copyright law, he came up against the PACER system in the States which locks public court documents behind a paywall. At 7-10 cents a page this is little but it would mount up for anyone interested in law, as he was.
The courts did provide an alternative: free access from 17 libraries around the country.
I would like to know whether these "free access libraries" were UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES? Because if so, they were probably not available to anyone but academics or staff of those universities, as is the usual practice. Also, in a country the size of the States, 17 points of access to "publically available documents?"

The first 2 million documents he's supposed to have "stolen" were from PACER. Then the public access program was shut down.

The point that he reverse-engineered his way in to get those documents - is that even relevant?
Later he logged into the MIT servers and scraped millions of JSTOR documents. We are not told why he wanted them. MIT administrators booted his laptop off the MIT wifi network, apparently because they thought he was downloading "too much". So he "broke into" (opened the door?) to a MIT network closet and plugged back into the network from there.

"The stunt got the attention of federal prosecutors, who arrested him and charged him with multiple counts of computer hacking, wire fraud, and other crimes. The feds ratcheted up the charges further in September. If convicted on all charges, he could have spent more than 50 years in prison."

By October 2009, MIT blocked ALL access to JSTOR on campus, which was restored "some time later", and he logged back in, leaving his 2 laptops hidden in the closet. He only came back in January to remove the laptops.
"In fact, in a statement following the arrest, JSTOR acknowledged that "we secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed."
They have actually put an obituary statement about Aaron on their front page:
"Aaron Swartz
We are deeply saddened to hear the news about Aaron Swartz. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Aaron’s family, friends, and everyone who loved, knew, and admired him. He was a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the internet and the web from which we all benefit."
(fetched from 14 01 2013)

Wired reports that JSTOR has denied seeking Swartz's prosecution.

While distributing the JSTOR documents would infringe copyright law, the PACER ones would not, being officially publically available.
Incidentally, what he did with the PACER documents:
"...he pointed to his bio in the Demand Progress statement, which notes that "in conjunction with Shireen Barday, he downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review.""

Let me look again at this generous policy of MIT
It looks as if the MIT network is generous in allowing access. However, as a person who has MUCH experience of trying and being unable to access academic papers for my own research, and even my husband's experience of difficulties accessing similar academic papers at the library even of his OWN COLLEGE, as well as many others, I would say that giving access to those who can physically GET to the campus for 4 days a month is - well, more generous than most but bah! Insufficient for most people's purposes.

I and my husband have no way to get to the MIT campus; we are not even on the same CONTINENT! What good does this do us? Also it looks as if MIT kicked Aaron off the network for downloading many PDFs - presumably he was using too much bandwidth.

For example:

When we go to the University of Leeds to gain access to JSTOR papers, we have to physically travel there - as hubby is blind we both have to go. We have train fares for the day as neither of us drives. We have to pay to even be allowed INTO the library. £50 for 6 months, £100 a year. No reduction of cost for his being blind. We now actually cannot afford to repeat this exercise, and have been very disappointed with it, having expected better of the university we had both attended in the past. So this bona fide researcher (he already has a PhD) cannot access JSTOR at all from home, as he is not affiliated with any university (ie does not have a job with one, being not only blind but overqualified and in an unusual field). And I as a mere "member of the public" - well, I'm stuffed. His research is and always has been UNfunded and UNsupported by anyone. That does not invalidate the research. but it means paywalls and the need to travel to get information are significant things we have to take into account.

When there, we would be allowed to borrow up to 4 books to take home but only for a month's loan, and there are cripplingly steep fines for overdue books. There was also a computer on which we could access JSTOR documents, print them, but not make electronic copies, under the University's JSTOR license. The last time we visited, the computer was not working very well, unsurprisingly as it was ancient; the printer had to be fixed before we could print anything, needing paper, ink, and tweaking. ONE computer that could be used by outsiders for this purpose was distinctly inadequate. Not to mention that making print copies for a blind man is hardly providing material in an accessible form; and of course said computer had NO accessibility software on it, so that hubby on his own could not have used it at all: which I why I had to go. Having printed off some papers, he can now take them home and look at them on the CCTV he has attached to his computer, vastly enlarged, and of course in whatever quality of print the antique printer felt like doing that day. Digital format would allow him to see them MUCH more clearly on his computer screen, but is simply not available. Apparently because the old computer does not even have a working floppy drive, let alone a port for a memory stick. Also, there was doubt as to when the second JSTOR-access for non-university users computer or the second printer would be repaired, or if it ever would be.

THIS is what Aaron was trying to do something about. This institutionalization of knowledge. This effective banning of people who are not officially approved from this knowledge.

RIP Aaron. We have to keep hoping for change, but the world will be the poorer now he's gone.


February 4, 2016