Should it be free?

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The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has reignited the discussion on free access to information and data on the Internet.First published in Star 2, The Star. Jan 17, 2013.



Star2, ThurSdAy 17 JAnuAry 2013



[email protected]

The death of Internet
activist Aaron Swartz
has reignited the
discussion on free
access to information
and data on the

Should it be free?


AST 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
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
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
In 2008, Swartz published his
“Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”,
and wrote:
Information is power. But like all
power, there are those who want to

All for
The late Aaron
Swartz has been
hailed as a hero
of the free
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 down-

INTERNET freedom activist Aaron Swartz,
who was found dead in his New York apartment last Friday, struggled for years against
a legal system that he felt had not caught up
to the information age.
Federal prosecutors had tried unsuccessfully to mount a case against him for publishing court documents that normally cost a fee
to download.
In the end, Swartz’s family said, that same
system helped cause his death by branding
as a felon a talented young activist who was
more interested in spreading academic information than in the fraud federal prosecutors
had charged him with.
The death by suicide of Swartz, 26, was
“the product of a criminal justice system rife
with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” his family said in a statement on
Saturday. Swartz’s trial was set to begin in
April, with an early hearing scheduled for
later this month.
Federal prosecutors in Boston dismissed
the charges against Swartz on Monday,
including wire fraud and computer fraud.
Swartz was only the latest face of a decadesold movement to push more information into
the public domain. His case highlights society’s uncertain, evolving view of how to treat
people who break into computer systems and
share data not to enrich themselves, but to
make it available to others.
“There’s a battle going on ... to define
everything ... on the Internet in terms
of traditional things that the law understands,” Swartz said in a 2012 speech about
the Internet copyright law known as SOPA.
Under the law, he said, “new technology,
instead of bringing us greater freedom,

loaded 4.8 million articles from
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
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.
This follows on from Swartz’s
work on the Open Access movement, which encourages the
publishing or archiving of peerreviewed scholarly journal articles
on the Internet to be made available
freely to anyone who wishes to
have access.
In his manifesto (http://archive.
anifesto/Goamjuly2008), Swartz
continued: “The Open Access
Movement has fought valiantly to

InsIght 13

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
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.
n Niki Cheong is a writer, consultant
and speaker on media and digital
culture. Connect with him online at or on Twitter
via @nikicheong.

iSnap me
for a video

Suicide fuels debate over computer crime
would have snuffed out fundamental rights
we’d always taken for granted.”
“The (US) Government used the same laws
intended to go after digital bank robbers to
go after this 26-year-old genius,” said Chris
Soghoian, a policy analyst with the American
Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy and
technology project.

Unshielded advocates
Existing US laws don’t recognise the distinction between two types of computer
crimes, Soghoian said: malicious crimes committed for profit, such as the large-scale theft
of bank data or corporate secrets; and cases
where hackers break into systems to prove
their skillfulness or spread information that
they think should be available to the public.
Swartz was an early advocate of freer
access to data. His work put him at the forefront of a vocal, influential group that believes
advocates like him should be protected
from the full force of laws used to prosecute
thieves and gangsters, said Kelly Caine, a
professor at Clemson University who studies
attitudes toward technology and privacy.
“He was doing this not ... for personal gain,
but because he believed information should
be free and open, and felt it would help a lot
of people,” she said.
Many people and companies hold the
view that data theft is as harmful as theft of
physical property and should always carry

the same punishment, said attorney Theodore
Claypoole, who has been involved with
Internet and data issues for 25 years.
“There are commercial reasons, and military and governmental reasons” why prosecutors feel they need tools to go after hackers, Claypoole said. Swartz’s case raises the
question of, “Where is the line? What is too
much protection for moneyed interests and
the holders of intellectual property?”

‘Horribly overblown’
Elliot Peters, Swartz’s attorney, told The
Associated Press on Sunday that the case “was
horribly overblown” because JSTOR itself
believed that Swartz had “the right” to download from the site. Swartz was not formally
affiliated with MIT, but was a fellow at nearby
Harvard University. MIT maintains an open
campus and open computer network, Peters
said. He said that made Swartz’s accessing the
network legal.
JSTOR’s attorney, Mary Jo White, had called
the lead Boston prosecutor in the case and
asked him to drop it, said Peters.
Swartz was charged with fraud, for downloading the articles illegally from JSTOR; and
hacking into MIT’s computer network without authorisation, Peters said.
He said Swartz “obviously was not committing fraud” as “it was public research that
should be freely available” and had the right
to download from JSTOR, so he could not

have gained unauthorised access.
The US Government took the position that
any guilty plea by Swartz must include guilty
pleas for all 13 charges and the possibility of
jail time, Peters said. Otherwise it would take
the case to trial and seek a sentence of at least
seven years.
JSTOR agreed that those terms were excessive, Peters said. JSTOR came over to Swartz’s
side after “he gave the stuff back to JSTOR,
paid them to compensate for any inconvenience and apologised,” he added.
MIT, the other party Swartz allegedly
wronged, was slower to react. It eventually
took a neutral stance on the prosecution,
Peters said.
According to Peters, Swartz’s father Bob, an
intellectual property consultant to MIT’s computer lab, was outraged by the university’s
handling of the matter, believing that it deviated from procedure.
Claypoole said there will always be people like Swartz who believe in the free flow
of information and are willing to “put their
thumb in the eye of the powers that be.”
“We’ve been fighting this battle for many
years now and we’re going to continue to
fight it for a long time,” he said.
For Swartz’s family, the matter was
more clear-cut, said Peters. “Our consistent
response was, this case should be resolved
in a way that doesn’t destroy Aaron’s life and
takes into account who he really is, and what
he was doing.” – AP

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