As If Lives Depended On It

From Library Babel Fish, January 14, 2013

I was shocked and saddened to hear of Aaron Swartz’s death. He was a bright, creative, and exuberantly principled young man who helped build tools I use every day. He helped start the Open Library, helped defeat ill-conceived legislation that would limit freedom on the Internet, and courageously set public information free.

When I say that last bit, I’m not talking about JSTOR articles, but rather the way he stuck his neck out to make PACER files available to all. PACER is a database of federal court filings. Though these are public documents, they are hard to obtain, because they are kept in an outdated system and the office that maintains it charges per-page fees to use it. When, as an experiment, these public domain documents were made available in 17 public libraries (all of 17 locations out of the over 16,000 public library buildings in the nation), activists – including Aaron Swartz, who wrote the code – downloaded batches of it to put it online and make it available to all. It should be available to all. These are public documents made difficult to obtain by design. In response to what Swartz and others did, the government decided to remove access from the 17 public libraries and the FBI launched an investigation, but had to drop it because the feds couldn’t charge anyone with a crime. It was perfectly legal.  Though public library access was yanked, you can find some of these public domain documents using a Firefox plugin. It shouldn’t be so hard to access public documents. And Swartz was a person who was willing to make information free, even at the risk of being investigated by the FBI.

(As an aside, I remember when the SEC put the Edgar database online. I was thrilled, because I had used cumbersome and expensive microfiche copies of these public records, and it was a pain. Making these public records . . . uh, public was a controversial move, because private corporations made a nice piece of change selling access to these public, but hard to access, documents. Now anyone can see them. It wasn’t an easy fight, and I have the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Carl Malamud, the National Science Foundation, and Congressman Edward Markey to thank for making it happen. I should thank them for a lot of things. We forget how many people have had to fight so hard for information that we now take for granted.)

When Swartz was arrested for downloading a massive number of JSTOR articles, I hoped someday to learn more about why he did it. Because he was threatened with decades in prison, we didn’t get to hear much about it from his side. We did hear the prosecution’s side: in the government’s version, he was a thief and a dangerous hacker who would feel the full wrath of the federal government. It seemed a ridiculous and vindictive overreaction and a textbook example of what’s wrong with intellectual property law enforcement in this country. Speculators who recklessly ruined the world’s economy and harmed countless lives while enriching themselves are doing just fine, thank you. But a young man who opened an unlocked cupboard, violated terms of service, and perhaps made MIT’s servers run slow for a period of time should serve more than the entire sum of his life in prison for that audacity.

Last week, as the prosecution was rejecting a plea offer from Swartz’s lawyers, JSTOR (which had no interest in pursuing the case against Swartz and said so publicly early on) expanded a program that provided the general public some access to JSTOR content. It’s not my ideal scenario, but JSTOR is negotiating with publishers and inching toward sharing research that was created to be shared.

A lot has happened in the past year. In 2012, scholars, particularly in the sciences, showed growing impatience with a system that could make knowledge free to all but doesn’t – and hinders research in the process. A mass of citizens rose up in protest and roundly defeated laws that would have hobbled the Internet and made it illegal for the government to require research it funds to be shared within a year of publication. A number of new models for open access publishing have been launched are are thriving. We’re starting to get things right.

But what happened to Aaron Swartz is so, so wrong.

There have been many moving tributes from those who knew him and loved him (and in some cases found him brilliant, kind, and frustrating all at the same time). I didn’t know him. I do know a lot of people who, like Swartz, suffer from depression or from other conditions that we still taint with shame, making awful illnesses that much worse. I know what it’s like to lose someone to suicide. It leaves behind a wretched mix of sorrow, rage, guilt, and a forever unfillable void where understanding should be.

There have been calls for the resignation of the over-zealous prosecutor. There has been an investigation launched at MIT to sort out what role the institution had in the prosecution. There has been a flurry of #pdftribute papers uploaded to the Internet by academics wanting to honor Swartz’s short life and his commitment to information access. There has been a lot of confusion in the media about what exactly JSTOR is, and much misguided anger directed at a project that is one of the better efforts to make research widely available. There has, of course, been a backlash, with people (usually anonymously) insisting that thieves should all be pursued by modern Inspector Javerts and punished cruelly and publicly as an example to all intellectual property scofflaws. Because theft is theft.

I could try to argue here that it isn’t, that copyright is not a guarantee of ownership but rather a limited monopoly granted by Congress to supposedly encourage creativity and discovery, though for the most part it no longer does. I could quote Thomas Jefferson, or talk about the economics of scholarly publishing, or about the ways justice should be meted out with a sense of proportion.

But I’d rather honor a young idealistic man’s memory by reflecting on what we can do, as scholars and as librarians and as people who have a special role in society to make new knowledge and share it. We’ve made some progress on open access in recent months. We need to make more. If we think our research is really not important, that only eggheads at universities with well-funded libraries have any interest in it, if what we do with our lives actually doesn’t matter, then we can go on as we are. Or we can figure out how to take all the time and money we are already pouring into this stuff as if lives depend on it and set it free. It would make the world a better place.