Information Might Want to be Free, But Then Again, It Might Not

| Tue Jan. 10, 2012 6:14 PM EST

From Ars Technica:

Aaron Swartz [] was arrested Tuesday on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, “unlawfully obtaining information from,” and “recklessly damaging” a “protected computer.” He is accused of downloading 4.8 million documents from the academic archive JSTOR, in violation of its terms of use, and of evading MIT’s efforts to stop him from doing so.

Swartz is a founder of the advocacy organization Demand Progress. In a statement, Demand Progress executive director David Segal blasted the arrest. “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library,” he said. Demand Progress also quoted James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University, who said that the arrest “undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles.”

This affair has raised a lot of hackles among the infovore set, but I'm a little stumped about why I should be outraged. As James Joyner says, maybe this should have been a civil matter, not a criminal one (though Swartz did break into an MIT network closet to do all this), but beyond that does anyone really think JSTOR should just sit idly by as their entire archive is downloaded? Would the librarians at Stanford sit idly by if someone backed up a semi and started shoveling hundreds of thousands of books into it? Sure, there's no evidence that you're planning to steal the books. Maybe you intend to return them all in two weeks. But come on. Are we really all expected to be that stupid?

Likewise, Swartz may say that he had no intention of putting his 4.8 million documents online, but come on. It's a pretty safe assumption, no? Swartz's suggestion that he just wanted to perform a research project is a wee bit improbable.

As near as I can tell, Swartz is basically engaging in civil disobedience, publicly breaking a law that he considers unjust in order to generate publicity. Fine. But one of the tenets of civil disobedience is that you accept that you're breaking the law and accept the consequences. Now he is.

UPDATE: This story is actually several months old. Sorry for not noticing that.