I didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was before he died. My first introduction to even the name was its repeated appearance on my Twitter feed the day his suicide became public. Suddenly everyone was talking about him–all the music bloggers, the graphic designers, the digital curators, the journalists et al who populate the 140-character version of my online life. Aaron Swartz? Who was this guy? Someone young who’d died suddenly and tragically–which is always important, no matter who it is–but this particular person seemed to have touched and influenced so many lives that he seemed worth investigating.
So I did, and to say that Aaron Swartz was ‘influential’ on digital existence is a huge understatement. As most of the world-who-cares knows by now, he was essentially responsible for much of the structure many of us use to filter and consume information on the Internet: the 1.0 version of the RSS protocol, the foundation of what became Reddit, and the development of the Creative Commons, through his work with fellow open-source activist Lawrence Lessig. I found out other things about him as well–that he was prodigiously intelligent, that he’d burnt bridges because of that intelligence and because of his unwillingness to ‘suffer fools,’ that he’d suffered from depression and various physical and emotional ailments for most of his life, that he loved my favourite author. None of those last things are especially relevant to a paper about the freedom of information, except that they make Swartz into a more tragic hero and a person that I think I would have liked, despite his complications.
What’s important about Swartz to a paper about the freedom of information is how intensely and passionately he cared about that notion–that information should be accessible to everyone, at all times–and how his short life’s work was expressly geared towards that end. Whether this mission brought about his death is impossible to determine, but there were many ways that The Establishment did not make it easy for Aaron Swartz to pursue his ideals. And this is the reason why his life (and death) are relevant and even important for librarians, and for the notions of freedom of and access to information.
For paradoxically, the Establishment that Aaron railed against–the bastions of Copyright and The Internet–were originally developed with notions of universal access and openness in mind, before things got messy and complicated and profit-seeking. So what happened? How did Aaron Swartz become a criminal, charged with multiple counts of ‘wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer’ (Kao), just for downloading a bunch of JSTOR articles? Admittedly a whole bunch of them–4.5 million, even (Babbage)–but was this a crime that warranted a possible sentence of 35 years in jail? And if he wasn’t actually stealing but merely copying these articles, were anyone’s rights even being violated? Or perhaps a more balanced question would be one that asked who the criminal actually was in this situation: the publishers who would potentially be deprived of licensing revenue from fees paid to JSTOR by places like MIT (the site of this mass article download), or the anarchist hacker who wanted nothing more than to beat the system. I guess my bias is already clear, but I think it’s still important to examine this issue to see where libraries can fit into it. Was Aaron on our side, or was he part of the problem?
It is my contention that not only did Aaron Swartz uphold the ideals of reciprocity and openness that were the hallmarks of the original hacker culture and also of copyright pioneers stretching back to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, but that because of those ideals (and his passion for them) he is an example of radical librarianship for the 21st century. We all need a little bit of Aaron Swartz in us if we care about what libraries are supposed to mean and provide in today’s world.
In 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in a now-famous letter to Isaac McPherson:
He who receives an idea from me receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lites [sic] his taper at mine receives light without darkening me. That ideas should spread freely from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature…
(Hyde, 2010, p. 169)
Jefferson felt very strongly about this notion of ideas existing in the “commonwealth” to be used by the public and protected from the “potentially corrupting power” of monopolies (Hyde, p. 168). He did acknowledge that authors, inventors, etc. should be recognized for their creations, but the notion of copyright in perpetuity was anathema, and he and his British predecessors who developed the very first copyright law (the Statute of Anne in 1710) believed in copyright as tantamount to “a grant whose true purpose [was] not so much to reward creators as to enrich the cultural commons” (Hyde, p. 96). The “willing subordination of self-interest to the public good” was always expected to be the focus of every good citizen, and any monopoly rights granted were given with the expectation that they would eventually expire, and that the fruits of individual creativity would “ripen into common wealth” (Hyde, p. 197). A small amount of protection for one’s work (fourteen years’ worth in the Statute of Anne, once renewable) was desirable, but after that time period had elapsed, “reason and the interests of learning” (Johnson, in Hyde, p. 98) dictated that all creations should become the domain of the people. Sharing one’s work was just the right thing to do, in order to improve the collective intellect–which, of course, was every citizen’s goal. It was common sense, for the common good.
This foregrounding of “open knowledge and cooperative learning” (Witheford, p.66) also featured prominently in the development of the early Internet. Although its genesis was the military (hardly the seat of openness and cooperation), the Internet in its growth phase was extended and perpetuated by so-called “immaterial labour” (Witheford, p. 65)–aka the original hackers–who experimented and tinkered with this powerful communication tool at their disposal, ensuring at every point that the protocols they were developing were freely distributed, profoundly inimical to proprietary control, and always upholding a tradition of open usage (Witheford, p. 66). These ideas were at the core of the Internet in its infancy, and the dissident politics of its early developers was symbolized in their creation. As Witheford writes,
“the development of decentralized, free networks was conceived by many participants as part of a computers for the people movement understood as part of a wider struggle against imperial, and corporate, power…the most technologically advanced medium for planet-wide communication had been created on the basis of state support, open usage, cooperative self-organization, and nonproprietary information circulation”
And so, even these two glosses on related areas of history reveal that our current society’s practice of vilifying the Aaron Swartzes of the world is problematic. Hacking an academic database in order to publicly share the information therein would probably be met with approval by both the first writers of copyright law and the early radical computer programmers, but times have changed and Aaron Swartz was headed to trial before his untimely death. Many experts close to the situation (his Creative Commons colleague Lawrence Lessig, potential defense witness and digital forensics expert Alex Stamos, Swartz’s lawyer Elliott Peters), while acknowledging that Swartz was not entirely innocent of wrongdoing (Lessig calls his actions “morally wrong,” if not legally, (Lessig Blog) and Stamos declares them “inconsiderate” (Stamos)), are dismayed by a system where the prosecution can push for a trial with such a harsh punishment upon conviction–a tactic that Peters declares was adopted expressly to make an example of Swartz (Carter).
Of course, emotions are high when an untimely death is involved. Accusations and hyperbole abounds, some of it no doubt misdirected. A fair amount of blog and internet forum vitriol seems to be targeted at JSTOR administrators for “paint[ing] Aaron as some kind of lone-wolf hacker, a young terrorist who went on a crazy IP killing spree that caused $92 million in damages” (Malamud), seemingly without these grieving writers’ awareness that JSTOR had withdrawn its civil litigation against him–or that in fact a non-profit academic repository is hardly the villain in this situation. Publishers whose exorbitant fees result in these scholarly silos are perhaps more deserving of barbs, but that is perhaps an extraneous complication when a (or any) target is required.
I feel sure that Aaron understood that nuance, however, and that that knowledge was part of the reason for his mission of liberation in the first place. Indeed, his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, posted in July 2011 following his arrest on the JSTOR charges, indicates that he did. He calls out an evil publisher by name, and accuses them all of greed and injustice. He sounds understandably angry, but he’s probably also right. What’s more constructive and inspiring about this Manifesto, though–especially for those of us in the library world–is a charge to take up his cause. He calls us out by name, too–”students, librarians, scientists”–and says that we “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” (Swartz). And he is right. We do have a privileged position, and if libraries are truly still the public spaces that they were ideally intended to be, that public deserves access to the information we have. We may adopt less extreme measures than someone like Aaron Swartz, but his passion and conviction (and the legacy of sharing and open democracy that he embodied) should always infuse us. Librarians can–and should–be radicals, too.
Carter, Zach. “Aaron Swartz’s Lawyer: Prosecutor Stephen Heymann Wanted ‘Juicy’ Case for Publicity.” Huffington Post. 14 January 2013. Web. 14 January 2013.
G.F. “Commons Man.” Babbage: Science and Technology. The Economist. 13 January, 2013. Web. 14 January 2013.
Hyde, Lewis. Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. iBooks edition.
Kao, Joanna. “The Tech’s Coverage of Aaron Swartz.” The Tech Blogs. 12 January 2013. Web. 25 January 2013.
Lessig, Lawrence. “Prosecutor as Bully.” Lessig Blog v2. 12 January 2013. Web. 13 January 2013.
Malamud, Carl. “Aaron’s Army.” public.resource.org. 24 January 2013. Web. 24 January 2013.
Stamos, Alex. “The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s ‘Crime.’” Unhandled Exception. 12 January 2013. Web. 13 January 2013.
Swartz, Aaron. “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Pastebin.com. 20 July 2011. Web. 24 January 2013.
Witheford-Dyer, Nick. “Cycles of Net Struggle, Lines of Net Flight.” Information Technology in Librarianship. ed. Leckie and Buschman, 2009.