Reddit's Swartz braves 35 years in prison

24 year old Demand Progress activist Aaron Swartz is facing a 35 year prison sentence and a million dollar fine for downloading millions of academic documents via MIT’s guest network.

Early reports are that Swartz plans to defend the case as part of a campaign against vague US copyright laws.

According to Ars Technica, Swartz, the founder the activist group Demand Progress, was arrested by MIT’s own cop shop and charged with breaking and entering – for allegedly entering a “restricted” networking room.

The breaking and entering was so that he could, allegedly, hide a laptop that was using a guest account on the MIT network to download millions of academic papers from JSTOR, an academic journal service that MIT pays for.

The downside to the copper’s argument is that the room was open 24 hours a day to students and guests, and allows students and guests to use the service and its network for free. In short, Swartz did not break or enter anything.

He is also not your usual spotty hacker type. He has friends in high places. Swartz is a big name behind Reddit and has the same ownership stake as its two founders.

The laptop was found by a member of MIT’s tech staff, who had discovered the laptop and an external hard drive under a cardboard box in the room. Coppers fingerprinted it and then installed a webcam to watch the room.

Later that day someone showed up with hard drive and downloaded 70 gigabytes of data, mostly from JSTOR. MIT claimed it was worth $50,000. He was later chased and arrested.

Swartz is now being arrested and charged with burglary and “breaking into a depository” – and the case is being heard in the Cambridge District court.

JSTOR said it worked with Swartz’s lawyers to get the data back and that was the end of the matter for it. But the coppers claim that Swartz was planning to put the archive on the web through peer-to-peer file sharing services.

Swartz has a history of downloading massive amounts of noncopyrighted documents from behind paywalls to release into the public domain.

In 2008, the federal court system allowed free public access to its court record search system PACER at 17 libraries.

Swartz installed a small Perl script into the library computer which requested a new document from PACER every three seconds. He downloaded nearly 20 million pages of court documents and uploaded it to the Amazon’s EC2 cloud computing service.

PACER normally charges eight cents a page and the courts reported him to the FBI. It gave up.