In September 2010, the online journal database JSTOR began experiencing sluggish downloads from a file “scraper” that was systematically downloading JSTOR’s entire database. For months, JSTOR monitored and blocked subsequent attempts, and traced the offender to a building on the MIT campus. With suspicions of cybercrime and disruptions to JSTOR servers and MIT journal access, police got involved.
In January 2011, MIT and Cambridge Police apprehended the suspect. The man was 24-year-old Internet prodigy Aaron Swartz, who had worked on the web feed known as RSS 1.0, the social news website Reddit, and other tech projects since his early teens. The case was tasked to an Assistant United States Attorney who led Massachusetts’ Internet and Computer Crimes Unit. The prosecution offered plea bargains, but Swartz refused to plead guilty to any felony counts. Pre-trial negotiations escalated when the prosecution learned of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, authored in part by Swartz, which declared that “we need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.” Swartz was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer; the defense argued that Swartz did not exceed his authorized access to the systems, and did not intend harm from his actions. A year later, a superseding indictment increased the counts. Other plea bargains were offered; the defense came back with different proposals; the negotiations reached a stalemate. Just over two years since the arrest, Swartz, who had a history of mental health concerns, committed suicide.
This case considers the prosecutorial discretion throughout the case, from the decision to press charges to the plea bargains offered. Participants discuss the factors appropriate for prosecutors to consider when making decisions, analyzing prosecutorial manuals and legal statutes as both guidelines and foils to prosecution in practice. Participants also reflect on the role of the prosecutor, and to a lesser extent the defense attorney, in the United States’ system of criminal justice.
Criminal law, plea bargaining, charging, prosecutorial discretion, intellectual property, online databases, open access, technology, computer fraud, mental health
Geographic: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Industry: Academic journals; technology
Event Start Date: 2010
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