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updated 7/19/2011 6:49:52 PM ET 2011-07-19T22:49:52

A well-respected computer prodigy and political activist was arrested in Boston today on charges he hacked into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's computer system, stole 4 million articles from an online academic journal repository and planned to distribute the articles online.

Aaron Swartz, 24, was indicted on six federal counts, including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. According to the New York Times, Swartz could face 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Swartz co-founded and is director of Demand Progress, a small Internet-centered political action group based in Cambridge, Mass.

"This makes no sense," David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, said in a statement posted online. "It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

"Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars," said U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz in a statement, according to the Boston Globe.

Swartz himself had no comment other than to redirect his Twitter followers to the Demand Progress statement. The Globe said he was accompanied to court by his parents and posted $100,000 in bail.

Is it freedom of information, or theft?

The indictment alleges that Swartz, until last month a fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, repeatedly used MIT's computer network to access JSTOR, a massive database of scientific journals dating back to the 17th century.

JSTOR charges private users up to $50 per downloaded article, but universities such as MIT have unlimited access.

Interestingly, JSTOR itself has distanced itself from the case, and points out in a statement on its site that "[w]e secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed."

"The criminal investigation and today's indictment of Mr. Swartz has been directed by the United States Attorney's Office," the statement added.

According to Wired News, Swartz was investigated by the FBI a few years ago for strikingly similar actions — he downloaded nearly 20 million pages of federal court records and posted them online.

The Justice Department usually charges 8 cents a page for federal court records, but Swartz took advantage of a trial program that gave free access to the records from selected libraries around the country.

Cat and mouse

According to the indictment, Swartz wrote a script that automatically queried and downloaded hundreds of JSTOR articles at a time. He first logged in to the MIT network as a guest, but was kicked off when administrators noticed the sheer volume of data he was downloading.

The indictment says he then played a cat-and-mouse game with MIT and JSTOR for months, forging a fake unique network ID for his laptop after the real one was blocked and, finally, breaking into a server closet to jack directly into the MIT system.

Neither the indictment, nor Swartz, nor JSTOR explain why Swartz needed 4 million journal articles, but according to Demand Progress, he has previously studied law review journals to demonstrate an over-reliance on corporate funding for scholarly research.

Nor do any of the parties explain why, as a Harvard fellow, Swartz couldn't have just used Harvard's network to access JSTOR — or asked JSTOR directly.

(Harvard told the Globe that it ended Swartz's fellowship as a result of the federal investigation.)

The repository says that "we support and encourage the legitimate use of large sets of content from JSTOR for research purposes. We regularly provide scholars with access to content for this purpose."

Until today, Swartz had a spectacular career. At 14, he co-authored the first RSS Web-feed specification. The next year, he joined Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig's copyright-reform foundation, Creative Commons.

By 18, he was helping the World Wide Web Consortium develop data management standards for the entire Web. He went to Stanford for one year, then dropped out to found Infogami, a startup company that wrote data management software.

Infogami merged with the social news website Reddit, which was then bought by magazine publisher Conde Nast, and Swartz was fired.

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