Reddit Co-Founder Faces 13 Felonies for Data Theft, $1 Million Fine and 35 Years in Prison


The number thirteen could possibly be the least favorite number of Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. Following four felonies in 2011, the Federal Government has filed nine more charges against the activist coder for breaching hacking laws when he broke into the computer network of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to obtain access to a nonprofit online service distributing scholarly articles online, JSTOR. He surrendered July of the previous year but remains free on $100K unsecured bond.

Swartz nearly downloaded the entire library of JSTOR and got hold of digitized academic journals that are inaccessible to the public. A parcel of the latest indictment reads:

“JSTOR authorizes users to download a limited number of journal articles at a time. Before being given access to JSTOR’s digital archive, each user must agree and acknowledge that they cannot download or export content from JSTOR’s computer servers with automated programs such as web robots, spiders, and scrapers. JSTOR also uses computerized measures to prevent users from downloading an unauthorized number of articles using automated techniques.”

According to the indictment, Swartz has weaved several methods to illegally grab articles and breaking into the computer-wiring closet of MIT campus. He set up a laptop with a false identity on the school network to gain free JSTOR access using the name Gary Host or when shortened reads as ghost. The guy has wits, in all fairness. As a consequence of an estimated 4.8 million academic articles downloads crashed the JSTOR system and became unavailable for days.

In 2008, Swartz angered the Feds when he downloaded almost 20% of the entire database of court documents for a project that places these for free online. This is also in support of’s founder Carl Malamud’s call to upgrade the court archive system to free and easy. In the U.S., you can “Google” almost everything, but not federal court decisions, briefs and other legal papers. They ran PACER or Public Access to Court Electronic Records instead. The system is rather outdated and is missing important updates to keep up with the current technologies. To add, a person wanting a copy has to pay certain amount per page.

But it was within the period of September 2010 until January 2011 when the hacking at MIT allegedly took place. The same time he is in Harvard completing a 10-month fellowship at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. The director of the center came to Swartz rescue saying, “Aaron has never done anything in this context for personal gain — this isn’t a hacking case, in the sense of someone trying to steal credit cards. That’s something JSTOR saw, and the government obviously didn’t.”

Swartz is the present executive director of Demand Progress, an organization that runs online campaigns on civil rights, liberties and government reform. But the young internet folk hero is well known for being the teenager that helped create RSS—a computer code that lets people receive automatic feeds of news and online services. He’s also responsible for the Y Combinator incubator program that led to the emergence of Reddit, an online extremely popular social network.

With thirteen felonies pressed, he is facing the possibility of 35 years imprisonment and a $1 million fine if found guilty.

[Image credit: Jacob Applebaum, used under Creative Commons license.]