Aaron Swartz, a former executive director and founder of Demand Progress, an online activism group, has been indicted on suspicion of allegedly hacking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer network and stealing more than 4 million documents.

Swartz, a 24-year-old internet activist from Cambridge, was indicted on July 14, but the documents were unsealed five days later. He is charged with unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer; recklessly damaging a protected computer; and aiding and abetting.

The indictment also states that Swartz, a former fellow at Harvard University's Center for Ethics, used MIT's computer networks to steal more than 4 million articles from JSTOR. JSTOR is a nonprofit that archives academic journals.

Large research universities can end up paying an annual subscription fee of more than $50,000 to use JSTOR, the indictment states. It further noted that Harvard gave Swartz access to JSTOR's services as needed for his research, but he wasn't affiliated with MIT as a student, faculty member or employee.

It is alleged that between Sept. 24, 2010 and Jan. 6, 2011 Swartz plotted to break into the computer wiring closet at MIT and to connect to JSTOR digitized articles without being detetced.

Demand Progress, a 500,000-member online activism group, is collecting statements of support for Swartz on its website. The group advocates for civil liberties, civil rights, and other progressive causes, according to its website.

The group's understanding of the case is that Swartz is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the web.

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

But who is Aaron Swartz? Demand Progress describes him as follow:

  • Aaron Swartz is a former executive director and founder of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group with more than 500,000 members.
  • He is the author of numerous articles on a variety of topics, especially the corrupting influence of big money on institutions including nonprofits, the media, politics, and public opinion.
  • In conjunction with Shireen Barday, Swartz downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review. From 2010 to 2011, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.
  • Swartz has also assisted many other researchers in collecting and analyzing large data sets with theinfo.org. His analysis of Wikipedia, Who Writes Wikipedia?, has been widely cited.
  • In 2008, he created the nonprofit site watchdog.net, making it easier for people to find and access government data. He also served on the board of Change Congress, a government nonprofit.
  • In 2007, Swartz led the development of the nonprofit Open Library, a project to collect information about every book ever published.
  • You can learn more about Swartz here, or on his Twitter page.