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Aaron Swartz Was Targeted by Feds Over His Activism (mashable.com)
281 points by ghosh 1696 days ago | hide | past | web | 62 comments | favorite



This is bullshit. Establishing intent is not "targeting" someone. Of all the things to get upset about in this case, this has got to be the least worthy. It is the wrongest of wrong trees to be barking up.

He was caught doing 'A'. He had previously written a manifesto that describes it as a moral imperative[1] to do 'A then B'. The prosecution believed that this established his intent[2] to do 'B'.

This is not an unreasonable conclusion. You don't have to respect or agree with any part of the prosecution to understand this. You don't have to believe that it was his actual intent to understand that it's not out of line to draw that conclusion from those facts.

Please, if you care about this case, don't waste energy on linkbait and bent truth.

[1] http://archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamju... [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intention_(criminal_law) (I link to this because some people seem to be unaware that intent has a legal meaning.)


I believe your answer, while correct as to matters of law, is actually missing the essential point. The fundamental issue is the morality of the prosecution of Aaron Swartz, not whether the legal team conducting the prosecution was following the rules of law. It is undoubtedly true that they were.

The reason people care so much about this issue is that many of us feel it shows that the current method of applying the rule of law produces bad and immoral consequences. Yes, it is true that Mr. Swartz's previous writings may establish intent in a way that is relevant to criminal prosecution. It is also true - and I believe an ultimately more significant matter - that this case demonstrates that "writing about what you believe" may indeed place you in greater criminal jeopardy, and that consequence of the "rule of law" as it was enforced in this case may cause more harm to society than the "evils" the laws were intended to prevent.

In other words, the significance of this case is that it shows our current methods of applying the laws may have negative consequences. Saying "the prosecution was applying the law correctly" is not relevant to the question: does this case show that we should change the laws, and how they are applied?


If I write about doing A then B, and I do A, and it's a crime to do A with intent to do B, then the only moral issue is whether it should be a a crime to do A then B. Using the writing as evidence of intent to do B isn't just "our current method of applying the law" or a bit of hyper-technical lawyering--it's obvious and common sense. Even a child will infer your intent from the things you say you are going to do.


Except A without B isn't a felony worthy of federal charges.

Our legal system's standard is "beyond a reasonable doubt" not what a child would infer from the evidence. The fact that Aaron had not committed B despite having the time and ability to should have left the prosecutor with a reasonable doubt that such a violation was imminent.


In this case, A without B is a federal misdemeanor. However, A in furtherance of B is a federal felony.

The standard for bringing charges is not "beyond a reasonable doubt." That's the standard for conviction. It's up to the jury to decide whether such a violation was imminent or not.

In any case, that's not what I was getting at. I was talking about the validity of the reasoning method, not what it proves or does not prove in this specific case. If it is a crime to do A in furtherance of B, that is to say with intent to also do B, it is totally valid and common-sense to use someone's past writings as evidence of what their intent after doing A was.

There are layers here that you're collapsing together. You can believe that Swartz's writings were insufficient to show intent to distribute the copyright works while agreeing as a general principle that it is valid to use someone's writings to establish what someone's intent might have been.


He was caught doing 'A'. He had previously written a manifesto that describes it as a moral imperative[1] to do 'A then B'. The prosecution believed that this established his intent[2] to do 'B'.

The exact word being tossed around here isn't "established," but "proved." The claim is that a document Swartz didn't even write on his own "proved" his intentions in a questionably related situation years after he wrote it.

This is not an unreasonable conclusion.

Have you been on the internet long? Have you ever written anything on the internet that a stranger could misinterpret or that could similarly "prove" you had bad intentions in some unrelated situation years from now? No? Are you sure? How could you even know?

Since when are we prosecuting relatively minor civil offenses like copyright infringement based on intentions rather than actions anyway? Will we start prosecuting people who plan to jaywalk?

Bear in mind the prosecution's goal was apparently to put Swartz in prison, to label him a felon for life, for an act even the prosecutors admit that he hadn't actually yet committed, without a trail. And your "not unreasonable conclusion" is essentially their entire argument for justifying this.

If this is different from prosecuting a thought crime, I'd sure like to know how.


The exact word being tossed around here isn't "established," but "proved."

There are degrees of proof. The standard of proof required to press charges is lower than that to actually convict someone in a trial. This is high-school civics class material.

Have you ever written anything on the internet [...]

Conceivably, yes. I'm not in the habit of publishing manifestos, but as somebody that is routinely misinterpreted by people that don't share his views, the possibility has crossed my mind.

But there are reasonable and unreasonable conclusions that one could draw based on any pairing of a person's actions and their prior writings. I'm only saying that this one is not outlandish or evidence of unreasonable "targeting". They did not (for example) accuse him of intending to blow up an MIT building. That would be totally unreasonable in a way that this is not.

Since when are we prosecuting relatively minor civil offenses like copyright infringement based on intentions rather than actions anyway?

That's not what happened here. Swartz was not charged with copyright infringement. Look at the actual charges and the actual law they're based on. The actions he was observed doing are as much a part of the charge as the intent that was alleged.

And your "not unreasonable conclusion" is essentially their entire argument for justifying this.

I said the inference is reasonable, not the prosecution's zeal. That's why I say this particular part of the story is the wrong thing to be focusing on. (And yet, here we are.)

If this is different from prosecuting a thought crime, I'd sure like to know how.

If it were a thought crime, he would have been charged in 2008, when he had the thought 'We should all do A then B'. But he wasn't. He was charged when he was caught doing 'A' and somebody inferred that his intention was to do 'B' as well.


The standard of proof required to press charges is lower than that to actually convict someone in a trial.

Fine. The prosecutor's stated intent was to avoid a trial and imprison Swartz using only this laughably low degree of proof. "Reasonable?" "Not targeted?"

Here's the thing: you're saying the prosecution's assumption would be reasonable in the context of pressing charges and going to trial. Maybe. But the prosecutor wasn't operating in that context. Shouldn't a higher standard of evidence be used before sending a person to prison? Of course, you've supplied the answer yourself, by pointing out that higher standards are expected at trials. But trials aren't the only way people end up in prison anymore.

Swartz was not charged with copyright infringement.

Yes, I know. I think it's clear that issues of copyright and control over the making of copies are really the motive behind the prosecutor's behavior, don't you? I mean, that's actually what the prosecutor's saying now, right? "Swartz had this manifesto against copyright, therefore we charged him with the far more serious crime of fraud. Perfectly reasonable. Totally not targeting anyone."

The actions he was observed doing are as much a part of the charge as the intent that was alleged.

I really don't see how. He was legally entitled to make the copies that he made; the alleged intent is the sole basis for even supposing any crime existed.

If it were a thought crime, he would have been charged in 2008...

The scenario you describe also strikes me as prosecution for a thought crime. I don't see how that imaginary scenario exempts this real one from being prosecution for a thought crime, though.


Of course, you've supplied the answer yourself, by pointing out that higher standards are expected at trials. But trials aren't the only way people end up in prison anymore.

I'm not sure if I understand what you're getting at. Aaron didn't accept a plea deal, and he didn't have to if he didn't want to.

He was legally entitled to make the copies that he made; the alleged intent is the sole basis for even supposing any crime existed.

This is false. Look at the charge sheet and look at the law cited. Many people seem to have this misconception, but the law doesn't say "it's a crime to intend to do this", it says "it is a crime to do this thing with the intent to do this other thing". Both the things he did and the intent that was alleged are part of the accusation, and both would have have to been proven to the standards of "beyond a reasonable doubt" if it had gone to trial. If the prosecution could not meet that standard for his actions (i.e. if they could not show that he was not legally entitled to do the downloading the way he did), he would have been found not guilty as well.

The point being: the alleged intent is not the sole basis for the charge.


Wasn't a not-insignificant part of the prosecution established to be him breaking and entering into a secured room and then proceeding to force access to a network port ?

The same goes for the manifesto he wrote. It's not like "A" was "riding ponies", "A" in your text is using violence to force access to documents, because he believed them to be public domain, and then republishing them. As the prosecution claims, that document was not used to establish criminal intent, nor to prove that he committed a crime, but was merely used to establish motive. Needless to say, the criminal part came from the breaking and entering and hacking someone else's computer system.


Wasn't a not-insignificant part of the prosecution established to be him breaking and entering into a secured room and then proceeding to force access to a network port ?

MIT and JSTOR declined to press such charges.

The government's charges were fraud charges - more or less, they claimed that Swartz would later do something illegal with the data he had copied, and that warranted imprisonment now, before the fact.

"A" in your text is using violence to force access to documents, because he believed them to be public domain, and then republishing them.

That's not my text you're referring to.

No one has ever claimed there was any violence or force involved in any part of this.

No republishing actually occurred; the government is claiming that Swartz's prior writings prove that such republishing was his goal, and that he therefore belonged in federal prison - because of his intent to commit a civil offense.


None of this is correct. MIT didn't decline to prosecute. Also, the charge was not for "attempted copyright infringement." It was for illegally accessing a network in furtherance of a scheme to illegally distribute copyrighted documents. The prosecution wasn't arguing: "he should be punished because he intended to distribute copyrighted documents." They were arguing: "the CFAA charge should be bumped up from a misdemeanor to a felony because the illegal access was in the context of a plan to do something else illegal."

The key distinction between the two is that what you're suggesting is that he was being charged for intent alone. In reality, the intent was relevant to establishing the degree of the crime. That's pretty much how all crimes work--you can't be punished for intent without taking any action, but once you take action your intent determines what the severity of the crime is.


According to the article, didn't the manifesto claim to legally purchase non-copyrighted material and then distribute it legally?

If what Aaron did is legally get non-copyrighted material with the legal intent of distributing it, then there's no legal case to be made at all.

If what he did is illegal, or getting of copyrighted material, then it mismatches what the manifesto said, so is problematic at establishing intent.


What the hell? You could just Google it to read it in its entirety. Do you really need to argue about what Mashable says Techdirt says the Huffington Post says an anonymous staffer says Carmen Ortiz says her AUSA says Aaron Swartz says?

Short answer: no, you're wrong about the "manifesto".


I'd suggest that its the law that is bent.


The stuff you write is bullshit.

If we treat the law the way you treat it then we violate the rule of proportion again. How can you talk about "criminal intent" when we are talking about copyrights protection? It's extremely different to murder somebody, than to violate copyrights. The first is widely perceived as morally wrong among all nations. What about the second? How can you, therefore, talk about "criminal intent" in case of copyright protection? The intent here is quite obvious, the intent is to CHANGE THE LAW. This is "criminal intent" for you? If intent to change the law were "criminal intent", because it hurts some specific businesses, then the law would never change for the good of nations, instead it would change for the good of people with power. Or, it would change, but like it has happened historically, with a bloodshed. This is right for you?

Think about it, use your brain, please!


No, what you write is bullshit.

There are LEGAL ways to try and change a law. That isn't what happened. There was "criminal intent" whether or not you AGREE with the law or now.


A notable case study in subverting the law to change its effect is actually Richard M. Stallman. His GNU campaign was (and is) built on strong IP rights, which is how he managed to bootstrap a strong Free and open source software ecosystem that could survive being in competition with well-funded closed-source companies.

RMS was careful the whole time to comply with the law as written since he understood that you can't force change to the legal code by simply imposing it on other people like some kind of 'benevolent dictator'.

His quest is not at all finished by I'd like to think we'll at least solve the issue of software patents in my lifetime thanks to his hard work and the work of hundreds of others (including like-minded legislators!).

Say what you want about aaronsw but the fact is that he jumped the shark when he broke into a computer network (repeatedly) in order to advance his aims, however benevolent they are.


civil disobedience means deliberately breaking immoral laws because the legal means for changing those laws are not available or are corrupted and not functional. an act of civil disobedience must be evaluated on moral grounds, not legal ones.


Similar things happen here in Sweden. Peter Sunde, the public face of TPB was a activist fighting for less fucked up copyright laws etc. He got blacklisted as a Neo-nazi by Sweden's feds S√ĄPO.

Very sad, but not very suprising.


Indeed. The absurdity of that was explained by Peter Sunde himself in the documentary AFK (available for viewing here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTOKXCEwo_8 -- which I highly recommend as worth watching ).


How does something like that even happen? Do they have laws like in US with their "associated forces" thing? Peter Sunder didn't do any infringement himself (neither did TPB, but let's just say that's a grayer area for now).


Gotta say... for all the flack the US Government takes around here, this illustrates there are no perfect systems. That is ridiculous.


One sentence in one Huffington Post article. An endless stream of wild extrapolations by publications trying to gin up rageviews.


While I have enormous sympathy for Taren, Aaron's family, and all who knew him, there isn't very hard evidence for this particular assertion. I do recall that his lawyer didn't feel that it was a politically motivated prosecution.

An agressive prosecution will naturally research what the target has done in the past as a way of establishing intent.

Not that I don't feel that the prosecution Aaron wasn't egregious.


I wonder how his crime would have been reported/perceived in the US if he were a citizen prosecuted by his government in China or Russia... I image it would've involve a little swap of s/ro/er/


>they offerred Swartz a plea deal that would have sent him to jail for three months

Why didn't he take that?


He wasn't guilty. Why would a prosecutor give someone an option between 30 years and 3 months - unless they know they have nothing to hold him on, but think they may get lucky and just accept the 3 months period and "admit he was guilty"?

Either he's a dangerous criminal who deserves 30 years in jail, or it's nothing, and the only reason they ask him to accept 3 months is because they would look foolish asking him to accept anything less than that (like say weeks or days).


What wasn't he guilty of?


Wire fraud.

If you shoplift from a store wearing a fake mustache, and saying your name is "Mickey Mouse", you aren't committing fraud, just shoplifting. If you download documents with an anonymous name ("Gary Host", not the name of a MIT student / staff member) and an anonymous MAC address (once again - not passing yourself off as anything other than a guest) you are guilty of copyright infringement, not wire fraud. Using a script to rapidly change your name / MAC address might be a different matter, as you are pretending to be a crowd of people (and it's hard to respond to). But there's nothing he did to circumvent the security that was intended to make a material misrepresentation, he simply did the equivalent of using his hotmail account to create a new account once his gmail was banned.

For things like fraud, there's no hard and fast laws. The courts use a thing called "common sense" (or precedent, which is using a previous judge's common sense). The bar for fraud is pretty high - he had to have misled the victim, and that misrepresentation must have made them behave differently (among other requirements). Had he used his own name, and used a new laptop instead of spoofing his MAC address, he would still have been able to download the documents.

But that's just my opinion, and IANAL.


The frivolous charges of wire fraud, damaging computer systems with wrecklessness, etc.


he wasn't guilty of the crimes he was accused of. an innocent man shouldn't accept a plea. that is a coerced confession and one of the worst forms of tyranny.


Can you enlist some of those things you think he was guilty of? Leaving aside the fact that he was actually trying to forcefully give people (you and I) back what they already owned.


This presupposes that one can own information in the first place.


Well research papers that were funded by people's money - sure why not?


you should research the background of this case more. the jstor documents in question were already in the public domain.


To take the plea deal, he would have had to admit guilt (Heymann insisted on it)

Summary: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/15/aaron-swart...


Wasn't he though? In hindsight this still seems like a better deal as opposed to what actually happened.


Was he? He was never tried, and neither a court nor a jury made a finding either way. The evidence that is publicly available doesn't back up some of the charges against him and at best is ambiguous as to whether his actions would result in even a 3 months prison sentence, if anything, if he had had the chance to have his case heard in court. Especially given that with his earlier work with PACER it's quite likely that his goal with JSTOR was to gain access to and release documents which, legally, should have been in the public domain.

Besides which, whether or not he violated the law is only partially relevant as the morality of the law is also at issue. How would you feel if your only option was to plead guilty to a law you felt was unjust?


Never having been through a similar situation, I cannot say what I would do if I were in his shoes. I believe that he didn't believe that what he did warranted decades of jail time. I believe that the prosecutor believed that his crimes did justify jail time.

But your statement reflects two facts: that he did end up committing suicide (not known a priori) and that he chose not to accept guilt when he didn't believe he was guilty (and I fully suspect you've never been in that type of situation at the severity of the Swartz case, so it's hard to definitively state that you would just take the jail time)


As others have said, he would also be branded a felon, which in the US is enough to ruin most people's professional careers - not to mention a host of other very strict restrictions.


Aaron wasn't most people though, and it's not as if his profession was one that would be ruined by a criminal record.


It's not just about profession. Being labeled a felon is a serious pain in the ass and follows you for the rest of your life.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felony#United_States

Besides all the restrictions, there's also the stigma attached to it.


That housing rental one is huge. Most people forget about that one. It has the potential to seriously effect your quality of life.


In practice he would have been fine.


I would not be so sure. Stardom fades fast, particularly considering the fandom around him really only kicked it up a notch after he died. Check out the general sentiment of him on HN before he died; most people thought he was whinging.

Maybe he could find some people to help him out 5 years from now. Maybe even 10 or 20, but for how long would he be able to rely on that?


Enough to not worry about getting someone to rent an apartment to or for him, at least. And expunging a non-violent felony after some period of time isn't that hard.


He wasn't most people _because_ he wasn't the sort to submit to such a demeaning choice.


A FELONY CONVICTION and three months in jail.

If you take the law and legal status seriously, you don't just accept being disenfranchised lying down.

nb. disenfranchised both literally and figuratively in this case.


It was that + branding him a felon.


As I (a dutchman) understand US law a plea bargain is only that. A bargain that has the prosecution make a plea to the judge.

The judge, however, is free to ignore that plea.

There is no guarantee whatsoever that a judge will follow the recommendation in the plea. He/She could still have thrown the book at Swartz.


The plea bargain can be made conditional on acceptance by the judge though.


>This is bullshit. Establishing intent is not "targeting" someone.

Legally speaking maybe. In right life, fuck no.

And it's not just for the trial. What were the FBI files for Aaron like even before that?


Mashable links in HN, what has the world come to!


It's HN's favorite topic.


If true everyone involved should be out on their ass, this is banana republic shit, it should not be tolerated.


Really? I would have said it's more Soviet or something (going after someone for ideology) and would save the 'banana republic' designator for when the NLRB "respectfully" declines to pay attention to the district court because they disagree. :P

But I digress.


Soviet-style would indicate social control through the designation of locally delegated secret police (political officers).

The mode of operation here is less secret and more open, more akin to totalitarianism, with a Federal twist.


What is surprising here? Folks who publicly flout the rules are asking to be censured, and it happened.


wow. thats an astonishing thing to say. you sure have a high regard for "rules". some rules don't deserve to be respected. they're not automatically right just because they are codified. there's also a difference between a censure (a formal reprimand) and criminal prosecution. you ought to think more about the implications of what you've said.


I'm just weary of all the gesticulating. The conversation isn't even about the right thing. This guy presumably had friends - where were they? They failed him. But all the talk is about projecting it onto someone else.

Why do they do this? Because after years of cheering on this manic-depressive guy, laughing at his antics and ignoring his crashes, his cohort hopefully feel shame at their part in egging him on to ultimately irresponsible acts.


The spirit of the United States Constitution and subordinate laws has been wholesale abandoned and legalism has been adopted. The law has been usurped by corporate interests, both for-profit and unprofit, to consolidate power in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals.

Equalitarianism has over-taken liberalism. Democracy, as H.L. Mencken projected, has been leveraged to undermine the Republican government.

The noble lie of the nation state is fighting to preserve its perceived legitimacy. Regardless of the specifics, Swartz has gone down as a martyr in the court of public opinion and "the people" are becoming increasingly untrusting of their governors and government. Once trust is lost, it isn't easily restored.

The elephant of tyranny remains until generations to come forget again.

RIP Swartz

nwzpaper.com/articleView?articleId=133 nwzpaper.com/articleView?articleId=141 nwzpaper.com/socialContract




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