Freedom of Information or Criminals?

In this post I would like to tell the stories of two young gentlemen, Aaran Swartz and Bradley Manning.

Many of you will know these names. Aaron is unfortunately all over the web this week due to his recent suicide, and here in Boston there is a lot of soul searching going on.

Aaron Swarz

Aaron Swartz

Aaron started young, at the age of 14 he was part of a working group that developed the RSS system. He was co-owner of Reddit, having been owner of Infogami, a company that merged to form the Reddit that we know today. He was most importantly an online activist, fighting for open access and against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

His activism got him into trouble with the police however. In the first instance he was investigated for publishing documents managed by the Administrative Office of the US Courts. These were public documents but the administrative office charged per page for individuals to see them. Aaron did not believe that this was fair so decided to take the chosen course of action. After an investigation he was not charged however, so no case was ever brought.

His second brush with the law went rather differently however. In 2011 he was arrested and charged (amongst other things) with fraud and unlawfully taking information from a computer. He had allegedly walked into the MIT library, attached his laptop to the system and downloaded 4 million academic articles.

His complaint was that the database holding the articles (JSTOR) were unfairly paying royalties to article publishers and not authors, and in doing so and charging for their service they were restricting public access. JSTOR did not push for charges and made no complaint, but Massachusetts Attorneys did, stating that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars”.

The charges carried a possible prison term of 35 years and a 1 million dollar fine.

After Aaron’s death his family criticized both MIT for not behaving responsibly when the activity was discovered and the US attorneys for disproportionately pursuing criminal charges. Some people argue that the problem lies in the law however, because it does not differentiate between taking things for profit and for other reasons. In effect stealing money from the bank is the same as stealing articles, even if the aim of stealing the articles is not to make money from the crime.

The BBC has a collection of messages from many of the best known architects of the cyber world and they really demonstrate the great esteem that the entire community held for Aaron. We do not know and will never know why he chose to take his own life, nor if the possible 35 years in prison played on his mind and pushed him into it, but as I stated at the beginning there is a lot of soul searching here about how the entire event was handled.

To Bradley Manning. Bradley is another young man who got on the wrong side of the authorities. He is a soldier who worked in intelligence, not high ranking but with access to a certain amount of low level classified data. He was arrested in Iraq in 2010 on suspicion of passing data to Wikileaks and is currently in a military prison awaiting trial.

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

Before his arrest Bradley was possibly not in the best frame of mind. Life in Iraq is not easy, he was taunted for his presumed homosexuality and self acknowledged gender difficulties and had outbursts of anger and self reclusion. He was not transferred though, nor his access to classified information revoked.

At some point Manning allegedly forwarded what were later to be known as the Iraq War Logs and Afghan War logs to Wikileaks, a crime that prosecutors say he admitted to in online chats.

He was charged with Aiding the enemy, a crime that carries the death penalty, although prosecutors have stated that they would only ask for life in prison without parole. An offer was made for a guilty plea in return for 16 years in prison but Manning maintained his not guilty stance.

Once again Manning’s presumed crime was not committed for profit but in order to give the public information that he believed they had a right to. The most known of all of the materials is the killing of the 2 Reuters journalists by a US helicopter crew, a sickening thing to watch.

Manning was very unhappy about the type of war he saw and felt that the general public needed to see what he had seen, and referring to the helicopter killing video said something in one of his chats that I believe expresses his motivation; “well what would you have done if you had seen it?”

9 thoughts on “Freedom of Information or Criminals?

  1. While I don’t know a huge amount about the details of Bradley Manning’s case, it can’t be denied that he made public classified information. There is no doubt as to what ‘classified’ means, regardless of the moral argument.

    The pursuit of Aaron Swartz on the other hand was entirely unnecessary and carried out purely as a portfolio case study for Carmen Ortiz to stick on her resume. The data that he liberated was nothing that posed any threat to anyone or any thing. Did he commit a crime? yes. Did the punishment being pursued fit that crime? not at all.

    The draconian cyber laws that facilitated this saga absolutely need to be changed as soon as possible.

    • I agree, Manning released classified information and I think he is going to military prison for a very long time. As for the Swartz case a lot comes down to how he was pursued, although we will never know if his suicide was linked. He had suffered from depression.
      On a lighter note I bet you wish you had some more hair today now it’s cold! I too am a razor head, all in a good cause.

  2. I don’t agree with the punishment that was levied upon Aaron Swartz. After all it was not some major leakout of security. Such huge fine and imprisonment maybe what drove Aaron to do such thing. Bradley Manning may have a different take on his thinking and he did what he believed was right to do. 16 years is too long and he could have been done away with less.

    • Well the authorities have to make an example of him unfortunately, otherwise the flood gates could open. One thing that is interesting is that the veterans organizations (in general) are supporting him. Veterans For Peace are running a campaign an, I wonder if people who have actually seen war in real life can understand what he has done better than us?

  3. You know it really is sad when things like this go down. The first time something like this happened that I cam remember is when Napster came out and they were charged with numerous crimes, and had many court cases, and all because the laws were not defined properly. I think laws should be fixed or rewritten before charges are brought, not charge and then figure out what the law meant. Not only does it start to set a precedence but it drags people threw the mud before anyone knows what mud they are being dragged threw.

    • The problem is that the law is always too slow, technology moves too fast. People are being charged with things that were written 50 years ago when the world was a different place. This will continue to be a problem too, think about surveilance technology and the rest.

  4. Considering what they have done the punishments seem extreme. But then again it’s more about making an example more than the punishment. Although not totally related the MegaUpload sage is a good example for this. I mean 50 years for running a file hosting site?
    Online piracy act is backed some some major companies and they wont this implemented one way or the another. And we all should be thankful to people like Aaron Swartz, because when you think about it they are fighting for us.

    • CNN has just run a report anout Anonymous threatening to release sensitve materials about the USW justice system, let’s see what unfolds. Aaron has a lot of friends that believe in what they are doing and certainly know how to do it. I do not see how fighting them in this way will ever work. They can get access to any site they want whenever they want, whatever they say about robust security.

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