Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Academics Should Remember Aaron Swartz

This morning, when I woke up and checked Twitter I found out that 26 year-old Aaron Swartz had committed suicide after a protracted struggle with depression.  I have to admit that when I first heard this news, I didn't recognize his name, but when I read some of the obituaries and blog posts about his life, especially Cory Doctorow's on BoingBoing, I immediately remembered him as the guy facing multiple felonies and fifty years of jail time for downloading 4.8 million articles, a substantial portion of the JSTOR archives on MIT's servers.

However, academics should all remember Swartz not just for this, but also for his lifetime of action to make the Internet a vehicle for the democratic flow of information.  He worked tirelessly to keep people from confusing piracy with censorship.  When he was only 14, Swartz coauthored the code that led to RSS technology, something that is now a fundamental part of the Internet.  He later founded what later became Reddit, a radically open marketplace of information, and he advocated for the establishment of a Creative Commons.  He also spoke vociferously against the failed SOPA legislation.

Both Doctorow and Lawrence Lessing speculate that Swartz's downward spiral may have been due in large part to the aggressiveness of his prosecutors.  So what exactly did Swartz do at MIT, and why is it so important?  According to the indictment, he snuck into MIT's campus and set up a laptop and an external hard drive and started downloading articles from JSTOR, a large nonprofit database provider that hosts academic journal content in many arts, humanities, sciences, and fine arts disciplines.  JSTOR itself eventually decided not to press charges against Swartz, but MIT and the U.S. government continued to do so, claiming that Swartz had stolen content valued at $50,000.

Yes, Swartz was a rogue hacker, but I believe he was trying to make a point about the fundamentally flawed model of scholarly communications and information in the United States.  Much of the information generated by scholars is effectively subsidized by public tax dollars.  To ask universities and colleges to pay exorbitant rates just to access the same content that has been freely surrendered seems unrealistic.  Worse, only those affiliated with higher education can access this information.

Lessing describes the case as a matter of common sense and justice:  "From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The 'property' Aaron had 'stolen,' we were told, was worth 'millions of dollars' — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar.'"

It's interesting that Swartz's death occurred just days after JSTOR announced a kind of middle ground.  It has begun a "Register and Read" program that allows people to download up to 3 articles for free every two weeks, as long as they register with JSTOR.  This is a good step, but it's only the beginning of some profound changes that are going to have to take place in scholarly communication.

R.I.P., Aaron Swartz.

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