Thursday January 17, 2013
Should it be free?
REWIRED BY NIKI CHEONG
The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has reignited the discussion on free access to information and data on the Internet.
LAST week, Internet activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his apartment after committing suicide, just a few months before he was due to stand trial for offences which include computer fraud after allegedly stealing millions of documents from academic research repository JSTOR (Journal Storage).
Swartz played a major part in shaping the way we view, and use, the Internet today. As a mere teenager, he co-authored some specifications for RSS 1.0 (Rich Site Summary, often referred to as Really Simple Syndication) and engineered the online project Open Library.
He was also the co-founder of Demand Progress, which campaigned against the United States’ SOPA Bill, which was seen as a move to censor the Internet.
Since his death at age 26, Swartz has been hailed as a “hero of the free culture movement”. While this article isn’t an obituary, I wanted to discuss the core issue for a lot of Swartz’s work, that is, free access to information and data on the Internet.
In 2008, Swartz published his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”, and wrote:
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.
In many ways, Swartz took it upon himself to free up the Internet, and transfer the powers from these corporations and into the hands of millions of netizens around the world.
The year after he released the manifesto, Swartz was involved in the release of what is believed to be 20% of documents from Pacer (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a database of US judicial documents which charges users for access that some believe should be free as they were produced by public funds.
In 2010, he accessed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s networks and downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR.
Not everyone agrees with Swartz’s beliefs and methods. JSTOR did not pursue a lawsuit against him, and MIT was believed to have kept mum (following Swartz’s death, MIT president L. Rafael Reif has called for a review of its actions following the event that led to the prosecution).
US Attorney Carmen Ortiz was quoted as saying, when the young activist was charged in 2011, that “stealing is stealing whether you use a computer or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars”.
Many academicians and online activists, however, shared Swartz’s ideals. One report suggested that a reason why he had gone for JSTOR was because the fees it collected went to the publishers, not the original writers of the research papers.
In a sign of solidarity, academicians around the world took to Twitter in the days following his suicide to announce that they were archiving their respective works online for free access to anyone who wants to read them.
Tweets of each researcher’s announcements using the hashtag #PDFtribute have been compiled and published at http://pdftribute.net/.
This follows on from Swartz’s work on the Open Access movement, which encourages the publishing or archiving of peer-reviewed scholarly journal articles on the Internet to be made available freely to anyone who wishes to have access.
In his manifesto (http://archive.org/stream/GuerillaOpenAccessManifesto/Goamjuly2008), Swartz continued: “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.”
Incidentally, a few days prior to the suicide, JSTOR announced that 1,200 journals from its archive had been opened for “limited reading” by the public.
Swartz’s death has reignited the debate about free access to information and data on the Internet. It is unfortunate that it took a young man’s suicide for it to start up again.
However, the discourse must continue because the Internet has already changed the way in which we consume this information. In my column last week, I spoke about how everyone – organisations and individuals – have to come together in the realisation that we cannot thrive on protecting ourselves and walling ourselves up for personal benefit.
In a previous column, while taking on the issue of online piracy, I argued for a different approach for corporations to distribute and monetise intellectual property.
There are many movements out there fighting for this freedom – the Free Software Movement, Open Access Movement and Creative Commons, among others. Now might be a good time to learn more about them and join the discourse, no matter which side of the debate you stand on.
> Niki Cheong is a writer, consultant and speaker on media and digital culture. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com or on Twitter via @nikicheong.