This past weekend open-access advocate and activist Aaron Swartz sadly took his own life. He was 26 years old.
Aaron accomplished more in his 26 years than most people do in a lifetime. At the age of 14 he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification (RSS is what powers the Planet3.0 blogs section). He became friends with Lawrence Lessig and worked on creative commons , and was a co-creator of Reddit. Afterwards he became more politically inclined helping to found groups like Demand Progress which played a large role in the internet SOPA protests last year (in which Planet3.0 went dark for a day)
In 2009 Swarts downloaded and released 20% of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records(PACER) database. This database contains the case-law from US courts and Swartz didn’t think it was appropriate for the government to charge 8 cents per page. This action got him the attention of the FBI which investigated him but later closed the case without filing any charges.
It was in 2010 that Swartz’s activities became at least partially aligned with what Planet3.0 is trying to be a small part of: open access.
The general philosophy behind open access is that publicly funded research should be publicly available. But it is much more than an idea of fiscal accountability. Opening access to research is the only way we as a global community will be able to solve the world’s biggest problems.
The insurmountable subscription cost of high-end journals has effectively shut out many researchers worldwide. Having a large proportion of the international research community unable to access research results is like trying to untie a knot with one hand.
And Aaron Swartz has taught me that content must not be the end game for knowledge. Why does knowledge become an article in a journal—or that which fills a book or a publication—except for people to use it? And only when they use it does content become the tool it should be. Not using knowledge is an offense to it. If it cannot fly free beyond the confines of content, knowledge cannot reach its full value through collaboration, correction, inspiration, and use.
I’m not saying that content wants to be free. I am asking whether knowledge wants to be content.
In an attempt at guerrilla open access Swartz downloaded millions of journal articles from the JSTOR academic database. To do this he connected his laptop to the MIT network, which has access to the JSTOR database, and ran a simple python script that downloaded the journal articles. This time he was arrested and hit with a total of 13 felony charges for computer hacking and wire fraud, which if convicted would have landed Swartz with a sentence of more than 35 years (50 years by some accounts). It was this lawsuit which family and friends claim pushed Aaron over the edge.
While Swartz’s actions were clearly against the rules (technically against the terms of service of JSTOR), it is a stretch to call what Swartz did hacking. He didn’t break any authentication systems, or spoof authorization to access the JSTOR database (the network he was connected to had full access to JSTOR) and the python script he ran did the same thing that a web browser does when you tell it to save a file.
And while I can understand why some people will call what Aaron Swartz did as wrong, we really should acknowledge that open access to scientific research (often funded by taxpayers) is important, and that the current system that restricts access with paywalls is in many ways a relic that has been made obsolete by new technology. But we should also understand proportionality. I think Aaron’s friend Lawrence Lessig (as he often does) said it perfectly:
He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
For its part JSTOR did understand proportionality. Once Aaron had been arrested and his laptop containing the millions of journal articles confiscated it was content that justice had been done and withdrew from the case and asked the government to do the same.
The government did not, deciding for whatever reason, to increase the original 4 felony charges to 13.
This, according to Aaron’s family, is what pushed him to end his own life:
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
or as Lessig put it, he was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying
For its part MIT has decided to do a “thorough analysis” of school’s involvement. There is still no word on whether the US Attorney’s office will do the same.
All of this serves to highlight the difficulties in changing entrenched systems (something we at Planet3.0 are only too familiar with). The academic publishing system is incredibly entrenched and supported by a vast infrastructure ready to be defended by an army of lawyers.
But Aaron’s courage in breaking the rules was not in vain. Despite the fact that the costs of this courage can, at times, be unimaginably high there is hope. Shortly after Aaron’s death impromptu memorials spring up. Many academics, who have long been uncomfortable with the fact that they have to hand over the copyrights of their articles to the journal publishers began posting pdfs of their journal articles online under the hashtag #pdftribute. I think the best way to honour Aaron’s legacy. To stand up for the ideals he stood for, to have courage to break the rules in order to light the spark of change.
We are all, even those if us who never met Aaron, a little poorer:
To the world: we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.