The U.S. government on Tuesday unsealed an indictment of Aaron Swartz, who helped to develop standards and tutorials for Linked Open Data, on charges including computer intrusion, fraud, and data theft in computer hacking incidents that targeted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, a not-for-profit archive of scientific journals and academic work.

If convicted, the 24-year old Swartz, a Harvard researcher who worked on the Linked Data standards while serving on the W3C’s RDF Core Working Group, could serve up to 35 years in prison and face a fine of as much as $1 million. Swartz, among other things, also co-founded Reddit and was Metadata Advisor to the nonprofit Creative Commons and coauthor of the RSS 1.0 spec.

Swartz also was formerly executive director and founder of progressive policy organization Demand Progress. His online political activist activities also included the creation of watchdog.net, a site to help people find and access government data.

In a release posted on the web site of the United States Attorney’s Office, District of Massachusetts — which filed the charges — Swartz is alleged to have contrived to break into a restricted computer wiring closet in a basement at MIT and to access MIT’s network without authorization from a computer switch within that closet, between Sept. 24, 2010 and Jan. 6, 2011.

He is charged with doing this in order to download a major portion of JSTOR’s archive of over 1,000 digitized academic journal articles onto his computers and hard drives, according to the information on the site. The indictment says he exploited MIT’s computer system to steal over four million articles from JSTOR to distribute them via file-sharing sites, in the process impairing that organization’s computers and network and legitimate users’ access.

It’s been reported that JSTOR apparently doesn’t allow downloading using automated programs, downloading all the articles from any particular issue of a journal or using the articles for anything other than personal use. Also, MIT has to pay a fee for access to these articles.

Said United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz in a statement, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.

It’s not as black and white as that, though. It’s also been reported that Swartz did have permission to access these resources – the problem was that he did so in excessive volume. And that JSOR had already settled a claim with him for that.

Demand Progress is collecting statements of support for him here. Thousands have already signed it. But there also has been some worrying that, however out of proportion the felony charges may be to the act, this particular activist effort by the man who authored a document entitled Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008 (which ironically doesn’t appear to be online) jeopardizes the reputation of the open access movement at large.