Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aaron Swartz - remembering a freedom fighter

Democracies struggle with the oppression of minority populations - it's a problem built into the idea of majority rule. But the modern world is a strange place where everything is flipped upside down. Aaron Swartz fought for the oppressed majority.

A tiny elite has access to the results of publicly funded science published in academic journals. These are the privileged few who are employed by a major university or who pay upwards of $40,000/year for temporary residency at one. The remaining 99% of the world's population is cut off from the mechanism of scientific progress.

If scientific progress is so vital for the future of humanity then why do we turn away the vast majority who want to partake in it? I dream of a world where the scientific enterprise grows beyond academia. I dream of a world where the collective intelligence of humanity can be brought to bear on humanity's most important problems. I dream of a world where the conversation of science is conducted in indexible, searchable, linkable, accessible, and modifiable public media. To reach that world we will first have to smash the barriers that academic journals have built to keep out curious minds.

Today, many conversations are happening around Aaron's death. Lawrence Lessig denounces the bullying tactics of federal prosecutors and the injustice of disproportionate punishment - Aaron faced 50 years in jail for the "crime" of downloading scientific journal articles with the intent to make them available to the public.

But Lessig is wrong to frame a discussion of Aaron's prosecution around disproportionate punishment because a lesser punishment would have also been unjust. Aaron deserved no punishment at all. Aaron violated property rights, but property rights based on injustice are invalid. Aaron's crime is theft in precisely the way that a member of the underground railroad was an accomplice in theft. The proper punishment for his actions is a medal of honor.

Aaron's suicide is a sad loss for those who knew him personally and for people like myself who admired his work from a distance. And his death is an indictment of a system that repays justice with evil.

I often disagreed with Aaron's writing (our assumptions come from opposite sides of the political spectrum). But his activism broadly moved the world in the right direction. And you got to admire someone that puts his ass on the line while the rest of the world merely talks about it.

I'd like to close with Aaron's open access manifesto, a cause very dear to my own heart:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy


  1. Was Aaron interested in going through all the hard copy and scanning it, cataloging it, indexing it and uploading it on costly bandwidth, and then being the custodian of it? Or was he just interested in waiting until someone else did all the work?
    Aaron sounds an awful lot like a progressive. "Don't show me how the sausage was made, just give it to me."
    Also, all the noble talk about "sharing science" is really, really romantic. But most people I run into who share this "intellectual property is unjust" philosophy are more interested in bit torrents of music, movies and software.

    1. The cost of hosting academic work online is absolutely trivial, and certainly far less than the thousands of dollars per subscriber per year that the academic journals demand. Open access advocates would absolutely handle all the digitizing, cataloging, and indexing themselves if they were allowed to. Even today, there are open access archives and journals like PLoS and, showing us the way of the future.

      Give us access and get out of the way. You'll be surprised what wonders a free people can perform.

    2. And it should be mentioned that new papers are submitted to journals in PDF form, so there is no need to digitize them.

    3. @BFH, Drudge called, said they are missing a daily reader. Aaron Swartz had first-hand experience, strike that, unmatched expertise in the field digitization and indexing of information. Aaron is one of the original developers of RSS, among great many other things which your little re-gressive mind has not a clue about. So why don't you quit worrying about sausages and intestines and get right back to your Obama cartoons feed (something that rightly appeals to your under-grown intellectual cortex)? Some things on the internet are not for everyone.

      @Jacob Lyles. I absolutely agree with your larger premise. The commercial monetization of publicly funded work is legalized crime, far exceeding online piracy in all of its gravity, as it bears elements of obstruction of justice and premeditated conspiracy to defraud, among a few other things. Take it from another ardent fan of Aaron's, there is no need to trip over yourself while distancing from the "leftists leanings". Many people find great inspiration and energy in altruistic pursuits, I can tell you are fond of it as well. To which degree they modulate their inclinations is rather trivial. Other than that, a great write up!

  2. So, to be clear, your crusade for complete intellectual property transparency begins and ends with publicly funded scientific research?

    1. I am in favor of a modernization of the scientific process in general. If we mandated that publicly funded research be available to the public that funded it, I'm sure other research (a small percent of the total) will come along.

      In general I support other existing IP rights but want to change some details (copyright is cool, but a copyright term of life + 70 years is too long).

  3. So when Aaron Swartz said,
    "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world," he was only talking about publicly funded scientific research?

    And when you use the term "open access" this is all you're talking about, publicly funded scientific research?
    Be honest. Be transparent.

    1. That's what I mean. I can't speak to the limits of Aaron's ambitions, but his data liberation activities seemed focused on data produced with public funds (PACER and JSTOR).

  4. I should note that I'm not a leftist and I disagree with Aaron's use of Marxist language in his manifesto. He had the same blindspots that most doctrinaire leftists have and I often disagreed with him. I found his political philosophy to be immature.

    But on data liberation his instincts were broadly correct. And what's more important - he was unusually effective. Where we disagreed, he didn't do much activism and where we agreed he had the effectiveness of ten thousand normal people.

  5. Talk to the universities about the cost of hosting academic work before blowing it off as trivial. I was an administrator for an optical imaging system back in the 90′s. Before spending nearly a million dollars on our system we looked at the system run by Byrd Library at Syracuse University. It was purchased through a Kellogg Foundation grant in 1989. They were scanning old, archived documents, some of them several centuries old and placing it on a Plexus disk library. There was an enormous amount of work involved doing this. They blew it up when the SA neglected to back up their indices and their system crashed; it ended up as junk and they tossed it.

    I ran a system that involved about a million scanned pages a year. We had about five or six people involved in administration, scanning, indexing and other work as well as a small fortune in maintenance contracts for the equipment. And this was to grant access to only 600 people on our network.

    Sure, the costs have come down since then and the equipment is much faster and more reliable, but there are still serious costs incurred by providing this service and you feel it has to be available to everyone? For free? Dream on. Nothing is free, someone has to pay for it. You just want someone else besides you to pay for it.

    1. It's already been paid for - it's all public work funded by our taxes, if you are not familiar with the concept. So that someone, somewhere now wants to read/study/learn what they had paid for. Your argument is irrelevant on arrival, as is your "circa-90's" experience. We are not buying floppies any more.

  6. I can agree, absolutely, with the concept that publicly funded research that is not classified and is in the public domain should not be allowed to be collected by a solitary group and put behind a pay firewall while locking out any other means to access to that information.
    But call me skeptical. I do not believe for one second that this is the threshold that the anarchist leaning libertarians are concerned with.
    It's been my experience that they believe there is no such thing as IP, and I believe that position is a pant load.

    1. @BFH- Enjoyed your comments on this thread. I run in some libertarian circles, and in my own experience, much of the anti-IP sentiment is coming from a "left-libertarian" (that is, left-leaning not anarchist-leaning) direction.

      Either distinction may strike people unfamiliar with the ideological landscape here as overly fine. My point is that a great many libertarians support IP. Of those that don't, it's probably not a front-burner issue for them, and they're open to discussion. Defending IP to libertarians rarely degenerates into the kind of intellectual bar fight that other combinations of point-of-view and subject often do.

    2. My acid test for any IP law is "is it useful for society"? I tend to think that some of US IP laws are okay but there are many problems with it.

      Software patents give people a 20-year monopoly on an idea that they thought up in an afternoon (such as Amazon's infamous one-click patent). Copyright law has no provision for orphaned works, causing knowledge to be lost.

      And goddamn it, we have the internet now and we should be using it to do science!

      But any changes I want to see to IP law, I want to see because those changes will make the world a better place. I have little patience for people that insist on their "right" to download hundred-million dollar Hollywood movies when their actions threaten the very production of the thing they are downloading. Pirate Party types I find insufferable.

  7. Thank you, Jacob.
    I will be bookmarking your site and coming here to look for things to repost.
    I appreciate and concur with all of your views (that I'm aware of at this date and time.) I also like how you maintain your composure while you speak your piece.
    My exposure to Swartz has been limited to discussion threads with people who are IP parasites.
    I will be updating my original post that linked here to say that I believe now that I jumped the gun on thinking this was left-leaning libertarian site that might be canonizing Swartz, like so many have, for all the wrong reasons. (My original post wasn't even about Swartz, it was a discussion surrounding the sad Swartz story that dealt with IP.)

    1. I'm not really left leaning - I lean all over the place. And I'm not really libertarian - I want governments to make nice places to live, and I believe the way there is with laws significantly more libertarian than the mainstream consensus.

      In fact, right-wing culture ideas are appealing to me at the moment, maybe because I'm turning 30. See posts like these:

      Thank you for coming and speaking your mind. I admire a lot of what Swartz has done. I think his instincts were in the right on Open Access. Part of my recent maturation is the ability to partially agree with someone rather than accepting or rejecting them completely.

      I told Swartz his Demand Progress logo was creepy and Marxist when he launched it. And I was upset to see Demand Progress campaign against the opinion of the ACLU and I on free speech (re: Citizens United).

      But he was one of THE key people fighting SOPA, and that is huge enough to cover over our differences. And even if we agree on nothing, the way our government treated him was shameful.