13th January 2013: Aaron Swartz, RIP

26-year-old internet activist Aaron Swartz — who co-wrote the RSS specification at 14; worked on Creative Commons, co-founded the site Reddit; and fought Internet censorship bills — committed suicide on Friday.


Swartz faced potentially 30 to 50 years in prison for using MIT’s computer network to download four million academic articles from the JSTOR repository. US Department of Justice (DoJ) prosecutors alleged that Swartz’s actions would lead to the loss of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property into the public domain because of data theft. JSTOR declined to pursue charges. MIT hesitated — likely due to Swartz’s hacked access of their network and JSTOR institutional requirements — and because of MIT’s policies and procedures on the appropriate use of its information technology and internet networks. This gave the DoJ and a Federal grand jury the pretext to pursue charges against Swartz. Wired journalist Kevin Poulsen details the “cat and mouse” game between MIT and Swartz over JSTOR’s articles. Forensic expert Alex Stamos offers a critical view of the DoJ’s allegations about Swartz’s use of MIT’s computer network and JSTOR downloads.


Cory Doctorow has written a powerful Remembrance that touches on Swartz’s battle with depression. Lawrence Lessig acknowledges that what Swartz did was “morally wrong” — if the DoJ allegations were proven to be true — and counter-contends that the DoJ prosecutor acted as a bully: prosecutorial over-reach and disproportionate legal charges. The Atlantic Monthly‘s James Fallows also notes Swartz’s contributions to information access, and his depression. The Electronic Freedom Foundation‘s Peter Eckersley has praised Swartz’s political activism and contributions to significant internet projects. The New Yorker‘s Caleb Crain wrote about Swartz’s activist causes. Swartz’s family will hold a memorial service and has launched the Remembrance site Remember Aaron Swartz. Archive.org has launched The Aaron Swartz Collection.


JSTOR’s response to Swartz’s death: “The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.”


Swartz’s case raises significant issues that academics and institutions have largely failed to confront. Many publishers require academics to sign over their full intellectual property rights to the journal in order to be published. Some also require payment for publication. These norms and practices resemble music industry ‘payola’ from the 1950s and 1960s: pay-to-publish and little artistic or academic control over the creative outputs and intellectual property. In academia, if you don’t abide by these norms and practices then you are very unlikely to get funding, time for research, tenure, or academic promotion. Repositories like JSTOR are also important to academic researchers — and very expensive to access as an individual without an institutional subscription (which is also expensive). If — as the DoJ alleges — there is millions to be made from published academic articles — it is being made by an international publisher oligopoly — and not by the academic researchers who create the intellectual property, or the institutions and universities who facilitate the research and provide resources to research teams.


In his overview of Swartz’s “brilliant life and tragic death”, Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias touched on the academic access issue:


Should people illegally duplicate academic research? I’ll just say that the other day a friend mentioned to me an academic article that he was interested in and I thought the title and abstract were interesting too. But none of us could read it. So I went on Twitter and asked if any of the academics among my followers would send me a copy. Within an hour I had a couple dozen instances of the article in question, forwarded a copy to my friend, and we both read it. That to me seemed wonderful. The public directly and indirectly subsidizes an awful lot of academic research on the theory that knowledge is an important public good. So the public should have access to it! We should be able to arrange the institutions such that this vast storehouse of human knowledge is open to the world without people breaking into closets at MIT or having a large social media presence they can take advantage of.


One initial solution to these issues is mandated publishing in open access repositories: a solution that internet activists like Swartz have helped to conceptualise, and to diffuse as a social innovation. He might even have played a further role in this important, unfolding debate — apart from interesting blog posts and a Twitter feed.


Now, we’ll never know.