Credit: Royal Society/Wikipedia
The open-access publishing movement, which seeks to make information on scientific research freely available, seems to have found some questionable allies in the hacker crowd. After 24-year old computer programmer Aaron Swartz was indicted Tuesday on charges of illegally downloading and attempting to redistribute 4.8 million scientific journal articles from the archive JSTOR, a hacker named Greg Maxwell uploaded 18,592 articles from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society to the online file-sharing Web site Pirate Bay yesterday as an act of "solidarity," he said.
Swartz, an Internet activist currently on a research fellowship at an ethics center at Harvard University, was arrested for his alleged hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT's) computer network in order to illegally download the JSTOR articles, which are free to access through any institution with a site license, such as a library or university. According to the indictment, JSTOR had made several successful attempts to block Swartz from downloading the articles through various means, so in 2009, he allegedly broke into a computer-wiring closet at MIT, hardwired his laptop into the university's network to download an estimated 8.2 terabytes of journal articles (based on the size of papers in Maxwell's Pirate Bay upload), and saved them to a hard drive. The download crashed JSTOR's servers and caused the entire MIT campus to be blocked from the site for several days.
Swartz foreshadowed his intentions and motivation in his 2008 Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:
"Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable," he wrote. "It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture." And he was clear on how to make such a declaration: "We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks."
After Swartz returned the hard drives and agreed not to share the journal articles, JSTOR declined to pursue charges itself, but this week the U.S. Attorney's Office in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts charged him with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. And now that he faces up to 35 years in prison, plus a $1 million fine, his case has sparked outrage from the "information wants to be free" movement; activist group Demand Progress compares it to checking out too many library books. His arrest has inspired protests, a t-shirt, and now at least one copycat.
Maxwell, who uploaded the 32.48 gigabytes of Philosophical Transactions papers to Pirate Bay, said in a note on the site that he had come by the articles "through rather boring and lawful means." Some of the papers from the world's oldest scientific journal date back to the 17th century, and each one costs $19 to download legally from the Royal Society's Web site. Maxwell was no less circumspect about his motives. "If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified [and] it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge," he wrote.
In response to the cost accusations, JSTOR told The Chronicle of Higher Education:
"it is important to understand that there are costs associated with digitizing, preserving, and providing access to content." JSTOR added that it continues to work "extremely hard" to make scholarship available worldwide "in ways that are sustainable and that assure the public that the content will also be preserved and available into the future."