Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event, via Wikimedia Commons
“Information is power,” reads the first sentence of the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, written by Aaron Swartz and other free information activists. It continues, “But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” When Swartz unleashed the JSTOR database of research papers from the MIT campus, he probably couldn't have imagined the price he'd pay for his civil disobedience. However, he probably anticipated his moral crusade being characterized as federal crime.
Yesterday, the Secret Service files relating to their Aaron Swartz investigation were finally released, thanks to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Wired's Kevin Poulsen against the Department of Homeland Security. (The Secret Service is part of DHS.) Poulsen secured the files' release after the request was initially denied. The irony of keeping Swartz's information locked up like the academic papers he tried to liberate should not be lost on anyone. And, with only 104 pages out of 14,500 (that we know of) set to be released, we begin to see just how big of a threat Swartz was perceived to be to the establishment.
But, I'm not so much interested in the Secret Service documents, as I am in revisiting Swartz's manifesto.
In the opening paragraph, Swartz notes how “the world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals,” is being digitized but placed behind a paywall that enriches publishers like Reed Elsivier, which he makes specific reference to. Reed Elsevier runs Lexis-Nexis and publishes in the medical, business, and scientific fields, amongst others. Swartz considered open access to this breadth of knowledge a basic human right. More and more scientists are publicly sharing this view.
In fact, in January of 2012, 1,400 scientists backed up the open access line of thought when they became signatories of The Cost of Knowledge project. Hundreds pledged to not publish in Reed Elsevier journals and otherwise engage with the publisher. As of today, there are 13,790 academics “taking a stand” against Elsevier's business practices.
"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."
Now, the US government, via the Secret Service, can argue that they were simply doing their job (investigating fraud) with the Swartz case. They can also argue that Swartz's breaking of the law was no way to protest copyright protections. Well, that flies in the face of centuries, possibly even millennia, of civil disobedience. What the US government is failing to do—and, of course, this isn't the Secret Service's job—is address the issue of whether or not academic papers, which advance knowledge, should be so tightly controlled by private corporations charging exorbitant prices for a paper.
“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," wrote Swartz, framing the debate.
Well, this is the arrangement the world's populations get when systemic lust for money, from top to bottom, becomes so engrained that it borders on religious devotion. It's the same monetization virus that infects America's university system, in which students "pay" for knowledge with money that is not theirs; thus effectively paying twice for information exchange.
Is the Swartz manifesto the right way to go about liberating the information in academic papers and scientific studies? It's certainly a means of forcing the issue into the public consciousness; but its effect outside the academic community, and in open access circles, seems limited. If Swartz's great sacrifice is to mean anything, the cause will have to become greater. More pressure will have to be applied to publishing companies like Reed Elsevier, but also to state and federal politicians.
Swartz's act was one of civil disobedience. He didn't just write a pamphlet—he carried his words over into action. There is a great resonance in that transgression. One that requires a very public debate about academic information being the human right of everyone, not just those who have the money to pay for it, or other avenues of access (student accounts, for instance). The moral dimension is colliding with copyright law.
"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," wrote Swartz in his manifesto. "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."
Think about that as you read the Secret Service files on Aaron Swartz.