We praise Google and Wikipedia for making knowledge more available — consider them two of the best innovations of the last 50 years — but after Aaron Swartz, a friend of mine, apparently tried to do the same thing he was charged with wire and computer fraud and faces up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine.
The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, made an interesting statement:
Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.
In my experience, tautological statements such as “stealing is stealing” or “correlation is not causation” do not bode well for that side of the argument. As Thorstein Veblen might say, the reason for the tautology was the need for it.
Ortiz’s statement shows that she, like the rest of us, thinks that what matters is amount of harm. Harm is hard to find here. The only clear harm is that MIT access to JSTOR was shut down for a few days. This is so minor that JSTOR’s statement about the case (which includes “it was the government’s decision whether to prosecute, not JSTOR’s. . . . We [have] no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter”) doesn’t mention it. I don’t think many people will agree that this amount of harm justifies the charges that Ortiz has brought.