Silicon Valley and the DOJ Collide in Tragedy
Below is the story of PACER, Aaron Swartz, and a brilliant life cut far too short.
For years we’ve been working with (and silently cursing) PACER. This system, which stands for Public Access to Court Electronic Records, is an online system built and maintained by the federal government to give citizens electronic access to court records.
As it usually goes, the government demands a fee for using this service. Recently, although the system was already extremely profitable, the cost increased by 25% per page 1from $0.08 USD per page to $0.10 USD. This increase was not even due to the old system being updated. We all now just pay more for the same antiquated system.
Aaron Swartz -Activist, Programmer, Child Prodigy, and Federal Criminal Defendant
Aaron made a bigger impact on the internet by age 14 than many talented programmers will accomplish in their lifetime. 2Namely, he wrote the specs for RSS feeds, something we all use in one form or another these days.
As a programmer, he was a child prodigy. As an activist, he was fearless.
If you are reading this blog, on this website, chances are you’re probably very familiar with how relentless and intimidating the federal government can get when on their bad side. Aaron saw the PACER system offering documents that should be free to the public, and saw that “server access fees” were limiting the public’s consumption of documents their tax dollars paid for. He decided to do something about it.
Instead of paying for the same document pages over and over again, he took a piece of code called RECAP and ran wild with it. In the words of somebody very knowledgeable about Arron, Cory Doctorow wrote:
At one point, he single-handedly liberated 20 percent of US law. PACER, the system that gives Americans access to their own (public domain) case-law, charged a fee for each such access. After activists built RECAP (which allowed its users to put any case law they paid for into a free/public repository), Aaron spent a small fortune fetching a titanic amount of data and putting it into the public domain. The feds hated this. They smeared him, the FBI investigated him, and for a while, it looked like he’d be on the pointy end of some bad legal stuff, but he escaped it all, and emerged triumphant.
In very basic terms, he took these documents which are in the public domain 3http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_domain and prevented the federal government from getting paid for access to them. Thus, Aaron angered people that don’t normally get this sort of internet-y treatment. He then faced lengthy legal trouble, but came out of it clean.
After this, Aaron was very busy with public interest activism. At one point he decided that scholarly and important documents 4research papers, journal articles, thesis papers, etc. hosted by JSTOR needed to be liberated from their server. These studies, research papers, and scholarly articles were, again, supposed to be made available to the public at no charge because they were funded by federal grant money.
To “liberate” these articles from behind the JSTOR payment wall, limiting digital access to these documents to paying customers to cover “server costs”, Aaron he planted a laptop in an MIT server closet.
MIT pays JSTOR for unlimited access to content for it’s students. Aaron, not being a student, but on campus for other reasons, downloaded a few million articles and then retrieved the laptop.
Enter the Government
Aaron’s actions were probably nothing new to the folks around MIT and Harvard. This sort of outside-the-box thinking is just the sort of entrepreneurial spirit those schools foster. However, his actions with PACER/RECAP damaged his reputation with the federal government.
The US Attorney’s office didn’t hold back when bringing charges. As a federal criminal defendant, Aaron was looking at serious jail time, or so he was threatened.
From Tim Cushing of TechDirt:
Swartz, the executive director of Demand Progress, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a catch-all designation for “computer activity the US government doesn’t like.”
Swartz had accessed MIT’s computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he “stole” several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it’s pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of “theft.
Much more has been written on this case. Read about what others had to say on prosecutor bullying in this case , when the law is worse than then crime, and how his actions affected one member of the tech community.
A Sad Ending
Despite 18 months of negotiation and legal posturing, it seemed as those Aaron would spend the rest of his life labeled as a felon. This is a label a lot of readers of this blog share and know the consequences of. To avoid this, a brilliant mind, prodigy, genius, and public activist killed himself.
I never met Aaron, but his work resonated beyond the word of tech, all the way to this federal criminal defense consultant writing for this blog. His work, making public records actually public and free, reached even this far, and that says something profound.
After Aaron left this world, the non-profit folks at CourtListener.com took up the mantle of keeping public records online for free. They maintain the RECAP database and Aaron’s goal of providing free access to public records lives on.