Aaron Swartz, me, you, and our money.

Aaron Swartz “killed by our Government.” ? Fittingly his life, torture, and death available for all in an outstanding, free documentary. What does this have to do with you and me? Why is it fitting that the documentary is free?  Read on.

Some who believe that our Government is always right or don’t know the full Aaron Swartz story, simply see it as:

“He was a criminal, so he deserves what he got.”

True, he was a criminal like Daniel Ellsberg or Martin Luther King.  What he did was more like King than Ellsberg, a virtual protest against a certain type of copyright, yet he was facing 35 years in prison. Actually he was yet to be convicted, committed suicide. Our Government did the prosecution. Was it fair or was it overkill?

There is more. The enormous loss is ours.  A powerful life cut short, enormous potential lost. As he said “I want to make the World a better place.”.  You be the judge of his actions, and history will judge how far the changes and his influence will last. (Yet, today as we celebrate net neutrality, we can see that we might not be here without Aaron’s efforts.)

What Was The Crime?

Was it at the level of terrorism? Or more like blocking traffic in protesting a business he disagreed with, trespassing at a Government facility, or speaking out at a Congressional hearing?

Aaron  was protesting at the time of his arrest against a certain kind of copyright, legally demonstrating a certain type of theft, yet protesting a theft from us, of the rewards of our investment. All of us.

He violated some rules at MIT, broke into the network and downloaded a trove of files – making illegal copies of a large database of research papers, largely paid for by our Government and foundations. Some would say our property. The crime he was protesting was private libraries that charge for public access to those publications.  Make huge sums, yet neither the creators of the information or their sponsors (largely us) reap the rewards.  Watch the film. It is a very good film, yet it has a sad ending.

Me and You

As the documentary points out, we all lose when information we paid for is not available for our use.  Cures for cancer?  Food safety?  Information needed by our legislature.

This all came home to me yesterday.  I was testifying against a bill to the legislature. My testimony was basically a cut-and-paste of past testimony – presenting past arguments to the current legislature the same concerns with a law proposed this year, similar to previously proposed laws. As usual my testimony was based on documented facts.

One of the legislators pointed out one of my links to an academic paper was broken.  It was a link to a paper by researchers at the University of Wisconsin partially underwritten by PEW, formerly for several years, available for free at PEW. No longer. It is now behind a “pay wall” at one of those libraries. Just the type of paper and wall Aaron was protesting. I was able to point the legislators to a) A summary of the paper, b) An abstract, and c) The pay wall where anyone could purchase a copy. Unfortunately,

  • These proved there was such an article, gave the general drift of the article, yet failed to cover critical statistic in my testimony; failed to describe in extensive detail why many earlier studies were flawed and the care taken by these researchers to provide a more complete analysis.
  • Left anyone wanting more; wanting to verify my claims with only the option of paying the fee.
  • I could have accessed a .pdf for that same  fee, but posting it for the legislature to see would risk the same crime and potential prosecution.
  • And what about that person or legislature in another state doing research on similar laws, they may never find this critical information, that they helped underwrite?
  • So we all lose the value of the research we paid for.

Watch the film and see what we also lost with the loss of Aaron Swartz.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.