On the 11th of January, Aaron Swartz, prodigal computer programmer and one of the fiercest advocates of free online information, committed suicide in his New York apartment, at the age of 26. He was in the midst of a protracted trial against the US government, facing charges of intellectual theft and hacking, amongst others. His death casts light on the broken academic publishing model, and more generally, on the inadequacy of the current Internet legislation.
Swatrz’ prosecution began in 2011, when he was arrested for retrieving nearly 5 million documents from JSTOR, a scholarly journal archive that charges thousands of dollars for access to its database. He allegedly acheived this by planting laptops in MIT University – which offers JSTOR free of charge to its staff and students. JSTOR and MIT University settled the dispute with Swartz, but the US government persevered with the completely injudicious prosecution – Swartz had in fact not ‘hacked’ into anything (he merely created the script that automated the download) nor had he committed theft (he was a fellow at the neighboring Harvard University and had free access to the MIT network). It was clear that he intended to re-distribute the JSTOR journals, and the prosecution’s acknowledgement of this reveals just how misguided its charges of ‘intellectual theft’ were.
Swartz would faced up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine if he was convicted; he had long struggled with depression, and the prospect of being incarcerated may have pushed him over the edge. But the extent to which the government was responsible for his death is hardly the most useful question. The alarm bells should be ringing when one considers that a banker that loses millions in private investments gets bailed out by the same government that suggests a 35-year sentence for a young man downloading overpriced public data.
The justice Swartz fought for was the shattering of these pay-walls that keep public intellectual property restricted to a select few. He dedicated most of his life to reforming the copyright and scholarly publishing system, such as by co-developing the Creative Commons, a project that hugely simplifies information sharing through free, user-friendly copyright licenses that is used by the likes of Wikipedia. This same project helps nascent publications obtain critical informational and photographical material free and legally. In 2006 he obtained (though he would not say how) the complete bibliographic data for books held by the Library of Congress. Finding the hefty prices charged by the public library unfair, he published the data on Open Library – a project which aims to provide an entry for every book in existence as part of Internet Archive.
The price of scholarly publications has indeed increased dramatically as of late, outpacing inflation by 260% in the last 30 years. The average price of a chemistry or physics publication is of over $3500 a year, making it unavailable to smaller institutions, and to most private individuals. Most academic research is effectively not available to the taxpayers that funded it. Other than being fundamentally unfair, this model of publication is not optimal because independent research often has to be done from scratch, rather than building on existing data. No wonder the same monolith institutions produce the groundbreaking discoveries time after time: they form an elitist group that hoards intellectual property and excludes their less-wealthy peers. The catch-22 of modern scholars and scientists is that they pursue innovation under a publishing model that is, essentially, counter-innovative.
In light of this, one can better understand Swartz’s motives behind the JSTOR ‘theft’. The hacktivist group Anonymous commented: “the government’s prosecution was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverted shadow of the justice Aaron died fighting for”. And indeed it was.
Swartz’s relentless struggle to liberate data for the online masses to enjoy freely put him at the forefront of a benevolent group of activists that is unceremoniously grouped with cyber-criminals because they too represent a threat to the current internet legislation. Swartz was an easy target and many believed the FBI made him into an example. A policy analyst observed that “The government used the same laws intended to go after digital bank robbers to go after this 26-year-old genius”. He was victimized by the very legislation he railed against and for reasons still not understood (conspiracy theories have even emerged proposing a government assassination).
Whether you consider Swartz an internet-age Robin Hood or a hacker imposing vigilante law, it is obvious that he was fighting on behalf of the public’s right to intellectual property. His efforts to reform the scholarly publishing model is a skirmish in the greater ‘war for control of the internet’ being fought between governments, corporations and the online masses. Freedom of information clearly is not in the interest of companies such as JSTOR who rely on exorbitant fees for income, or governments who are witnessing their importance ebb, and their control challenged, as the Internet emerges as a global education and political platform.
So far, institutionalized regulation of the internet such as those attempted by the UN or the SOPA act have failed, but in the words of Swartz: “There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands”. His death is symptomatic of an anachronistic legislation upheld by an older generation wrestling with an uncontrollable force. If the Internet is to reach its full potential as a network of innovation and co-operation, we must continue his struggle to make data available and re-usable to the people that paid for it.
– Mischa Snaije
(Featured photo: dsearls, Creative Commons, Flickr)