Amid Fallout Over Internet Activist’s Death, Poll Shows Most Americans Favor Mild Punishment for Illegal Downloads

By Cameron Scott 

Photo: Fred Benenson via Wikimedia Commons

The suicide of 26-year-old Reddit co-founder and open Internet activist Aaron Swartz late last week has reignited the debate over what should be publicly available online and how illegal distribution can be fairly prosecuted just as a new poll shows that just over 10 percent of Americans believe jail time is a reasonable punishment for those who download copyrighted material online.

Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines for gaining unauthorized access to an MIT server and downloading academic articles from the digital archive JSTOR. The charges against Swartz included hacking to gain access to the servers. But it was the download that the prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz, had called stealing and said had to be punished. The articles were funded with government money, contributing to Swartz’s belief that they should be made public.

When it comes to downloading music and video files, the most common targets of illegal digital distribution, about half of all Americans have done so, according to the poll conducted by the American Assembly policy group at Columbia University. Seven in 10 of those in Swartz’s age group had done so.

And just 12 percent of Americans thought any prison time was a reasonable punishment for illegal downloads.

More than half thought fines were an appropriate punishment.

Meanwhile, the finger-pointing over Swartz’s death continued. A petition demanding that Ortiz be fired has garnered more than 32,000 signatures on the White House’s petition site. Petitions with 25,000 signatures get a response, according to the rules of the site. The petition called Ortiz “a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path.”

Swartz’s parents said in a statement that the over-zealous prosecution of their son’s crimes had contributed to his suicide.

Ortiz’s husband, Tom Dolan, was criticized for scolding Swartz’s parents for the remark on Twitter.

“Truly incredible that in their own son’s obit they blame others for his death and make no mention of the 6-month offer,” tweeted Dolan, an IBM executive. Dolan referred to a settlement offer that would have jailed Swartz for six months, but required him to plead guilty to a felony.

A separate petition, calling on the Obama administration to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which defines illegal access to computer networks and under which Swartz was being prosecuted, has gained just 1,759 signatures.