Whether you take someone else’s property by pointing a gun at them and demanding it or by pounding out a code on a keyboard and taking it by stealth it’s still thievery. In the first case you’ve committed armed robbery and the second, grand larceny.
When you read a story in today’s Boston Globe about MIT setting up what is in effect a legal defense fund for students who commit felonies and major civil offenses — you see a venerable academic institution going off the moral rails a bit. MIT proposes to provide “legal resources” for students who get into trouble, i.e. are charged with criminal and civil offenses. These are not Daniel Ellsbergs in training. They are stealing for fame and for fortune.
I think that when we consider crimes by the brightest of our students we fall prey to economists call the Framing Bias. We judge the act, or the information, by who is doing it or telling it to us, not by the objective content. Most of us have been mesmerized* since radio, so we are easily sucked in. When Aaron Schwartz, who had so much to potentially give to the world, took his own life, the tragedy understandably shook his family, his colleagues at MIT and the computer science community. I’ll even concede that the US Attorney’s Office was too harsh in its charging. HOWEVER, Mr. Schwartz stole other scientists’ published works. For the life of me I cannot see who would be in interested in the obscure journal articles he “liberated,” other than scientists and libraries who would gladly and easily pay for them.
Should an MIT student get into trouble for doing something innovative and pro-social that only looks criminal to those, like me, too dumb to understand the technology, I say spend whatever it takes to resurrect Clarence Darrow and defend scientific progress.
But don’t sell us clever, adolescent computer crimes as Galileo facing the chopping block. MIT would serve the world better if it convened a year-long exploration of how to better use digital technology ethically to serve moral ends, instead of the other way around.