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The Inside Story of Why Aaron Swartz Broke Into MIT and JSTOR

The Italian retreat that radicalized the Internet prodigy

Creative Commons/Joi

Despite the many hundreds of thousands of words that have been written about Aaron Swartz since his suicide last month, there remain a number of unanswered questions about the life of the computer-prodigy-turned-political-activist. Many have wondered about the seriousness of the crime alleged in his massive download of JSTOR, the online archive of academic articles, for which federal prosecutors obtained a 13-count indictment and could have sent him to prison for decades. Others have speculated about Swartz's mental health (he had written about his own struggle with depression), and the role it may have played in his death. But perhaps the most mystifying question is why Swartz was so preoccupied with JSTOR in the first place.

Swartz had nurtured a soft spot for so-called "open access" issues—that is, removing barriers to the free flow of information—since he was a teenager. But by the time he began downloading JSTOR in September 2010, he was almost 24 and seemingly far more interested in overtly political activism. He had helped found a group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which funded and publicized more conventional liberal causes. He had worked on a Democratic congressional campaign in Rhode Island that ended only a few days before he trained his sights on JSTOR. Around the same time, a friend called to enlist Swartz's help in stopping a U.S. Senate bill that would censor the Internet by way of draconian penalties for copyright violations, among other things. "What’s the big deal?" Swartz responded, according to his own recollection. "I'm not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Health care, financial reform, those are the issues that I work on. Not something obscure like copyright law."

The whole story of what led Swartz down the path that cost him his life is long and full of tragic twists and turns. But given the obvious significance of the JSTOR episode, it's worth answering the narrower question of what got Swartz so interested in freeing up journals at the very moment he'd supposedly disowned the cause.

The U.S. Attorney's office prosecuting Swartz certainly seemed stumped by this question. Although the federal indictment states matter-of-factly that "Swartz intended to distribute a significant portion of JSTOR's archive," the only real evidence of a motive or plan that prosecutors disclosed was a document he wrote in July 2008 called the "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto." Swartz began that widely reported post by arguing that, "Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves." He continued:

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. …  We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. … We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

This is attention-getting stuff. But it only tells a small sliver of the story. For one thing, the document didn't just appear out of thin air. It was a direct response to one of the more exhilarating and radicalizing experiences of Swartz's life.

In the two-plus days before he posted the document, Swartz attended a retreat held by an international consortium known as EIFL, whose mission is to expand access to scholarly work in the developing world. The gathering, which took place at an 800-year-old central Italian monastery (or "eremo"), had a missionary vibe. Most of the guests had been working on open-access issues for years, either negotiating with academic publishers in the developed world or agitating from perches in Europe, as well as Africa and Asia, where many academic journals were unaffordable. The group would hold intense policy discussions by day, and then, at night, decamp for a nearby trattoria, where the wine and food and conversation flowed until the wee hours of the morning.

A recurring theme of the two-day event was frustration that progress with publishers and online archives was achingly slow. Many in the academic publishing industry considered themselves enlightened if they reduced their subscription rates to a few thousand dollars per year, even though it still put their journals far out of reach in most countries. (EIFL stresses that it has good relationships with many publishers.) JSTOR itself came up as a source of annoyance. As a nonprofit institution, JSTOR talked a good game about embracing the values of the academy. But it was often extremely reluctant to negotiate discounts to its exorbitant fees. (This has changed in more recent years, and even in 2008 it ran a special program allowing free access in Africa.)

Despite his own work on open-access issues in the United States, Swartz hadn't quite grasped the way students and scholars abroad could be so deprived of information. "I don't think he was very much familiar with the developing world," says Iryna Kuchma, an EIFL official who was present. Swartz became animated as he heard from the people in the vanguard of this struggle. "He was passionate," adds Monika Elbert, the EIFL official who organized the event. "Rich people pay huge amounts of money to access articles. But what about the researcher in Accra? Dar es Salaam? Cambodia? It genuinely opened his eyes."

For their part, the EIFL officials and their fellow librarians and activists were exceedingly circumspect when it came to obeying the law. "It's always easy to accuse libraries of infringing on copyright," says Kuchma. "So we're always very cautious in the way we make resources available." But Swartz was less attuned to these niceties. "Our discussions were very far-ranging. … We talked about the possible, the impossible," says Elbert, who like Kuchma disagreed with the methods Swartz endorsed in his manifesto. "Aaron was young. When you're young, you're an idealist. You're more ready to be radical then when you get to be my age."

Swartz tended to juggle half-a-dozen projects at any one time, and so his interest in the journal cause waxed and waned over the next few years. But when it waxed Swartz never found it hard to summon the passion he'd worked up in Italy. He corresponded frequently with friends he had made at the retreat and was familiar with many of the founding documents of the international open access movement. There was, for example, the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative, whose declaration argued that: "Removing access barriers to [scholarly journals] will accelerate research, enrich education, share the learning of the rich with the poor … and lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge."

In June 2010, a Swedish-born scholar and activist named Lisbet Rausing published a widely-circulated essay in the journal openDemocracy arguing for open access to scholarly articles. She specifically mentioned JSTOR: "It is equally problematic that JSTOR, the splendid 1997 database of most twentieth-century scholarly articles in the social sciences and humanities, is off-limits for the public," Rausing wrote. She elaborated:

Look at JSTOR (if you can). There you find the evidence-based, source-critical foundations of sociology, anthropology, geography, history, philosophy, classics, Oriental studies, theology, musicology, history of science and so on. They are all closed to the public. It is wonderful, of course, that high-energy physics and string theory are open to all. But is it not ironic that we have opened the gates only to that scholarship which few professors, let alone members of the public, have the cognitive capacity and appropriate training to grasp?

Not long after this, the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations attempted to join forces with Rausing's Arcadia Fund to make JSTOR widely available to the public, and Swartz kept up with these efforts. But they hit a wall when the activists learned that obtaining the copyright for JSTOR's complete archive would run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Finally, in September of 2010, only a few days before he began the JSTOR download, Swartz turned up at a Google-sponsored conference on Internet Freedom in Budapest. Though he co-led a session called "Online free expression and enforcing ethics & accountability for corporations & governments," he did not seem especially moved by the conference's formal proceedings. But one night he went out to dinner with a group of activists, including many who were involved in the journal campaign. They spoke about the outrageous sum of money it would take to free up JSTOR for public consumption.

No one at the dinner proposed a massive JSTOR download, or anything remotely like it. As at the eremo in Italy, the people in attendance were circumspect when it came to the issue of copyright. Nor did Swartz give any indication he had a specific battle plan in mind. But, then, Swartz didn't let on that he was planning to compose a manifesto either. Italy demonstrated that he was capable of moving quickly and unilaterally when the spirit moved him. Within a few days of returning to the United States, Swartz purchased a new laptop, logged into the MIT computer network, and began the liberation of JSTOR.

Fewer than four months later, police arrested Swartz after a surveillance camera caught him breaking into a computer closet, from which he had "hard-wired" into the MIT network. In July of 2011, a grand jury indicted him on four counts, including wire fraud, computer fraud, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. It added another nine counts in September of 2012. Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11, 2013, while awaiting trial.