Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 21 January 2012
Death of an internet open-access activist
The tragic suicide of a well-known internet open-access advocate has sparked protests against the highly protected system that limits public access to knowledge.
The suicide death of an American internet activist and a leader of the open access movement, after he was prosecuted for computer related crimes, has sparked protests and a debate on laws that hinder the public’s access to information and knowledge.
Aaron Swartz, 26, was not an ordinary internet activist. A Financial Times article lists his achievements: a software programmer who developed an online tool that contributed to the Web 2.0 movement, a co-founder of the Creative Commons initiative to promote information free from copyright.
He also developed an online information service that later became the popular information site Reddit. He later co-founded the DemandProgress group that opposed legislation limiting access to online information, and which last year together with other groups defeated the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act.
Swartz was charged in 2011 with getting into the network of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and downloading millions of pages of academic papers and scientific journals. These papers are in the database of the Jstor group that makes it available to libraries and others through subscription.
He faced up to 35 years in jail and fines of millions of dollars if found guilty. On 11 January, a month before his court case, he was found dead in his apartment.
The stress of being prosecuted led to his suicide, according to his family, which slammed the “exceptionally harsh array of charges” and blamed Aaron’s death on “a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutional over-reach.”
After Swartz’s death, a debate has erupted over the intellectual property laws that limit access to knowledge in scientific journals and other information to those that can pay expensive subscriptions, and the strong enforcement and prosecution methods.
Critics of the copyright system complain that a few big companies like Reed Elsevier and Springer dominate the scientific information industry and charge high subscription fees because of the monopoly granted to them. They also point out that the generation of the research is often funded or subsidised by public money and thus should be made publicly and freely available.
“The government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for – freeing the publicly funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it,” said a message by the internet activist group Anonymous, which they placed on the MIT website.
The critics and activists advocate open access to scientific literature. Instead of journals and data owned by publishing monopolies charging high subscription fees and available only to well-endowed universities and individuals, they believe in information being made freely available through the internet. Research and publishing costs could be met by the public sector or philanthropic organisations.
In line with this approach, a range of “open access” initiatives has developed through the
years. They include open-source software, the Creative Commons license free from
copyright, open-access publishers such as the San Francisco-based Public Library of Science
(Plos) and research funding groups such as the UK Wellcome Trust which supports open
access to the research it funds.
In contrast to this, the official copyright and related laws have recently grown stronger in favour of intellectual property rights holders, due to new national laws, the expansion of private rights through free trade agreements, increasingly strict enforcement mechanisms and harsh prosecution of violators.
The prosecution and death of Alan Swartz, a talented and much-admired leader of the open access movement, can be expected to strengthen this movement and create new momentum for reform of the established system.
Parts of the establishment are also demonstrating some soul-searching. There is an outpouring of praise for the noble aims of Swartz, even though acknowledging he may have broken the law, and calls for changing the imbalanced and unjust laws. The President of MIT expressed condolences to Swartz’s family and announced an “analysis” would be conducted on the actions by MIT that relate to his death.
The debates and developments arising from Aaron Swartz’s suicide are even more important for people in developing countries, since the barriers to their access to knowledge are more and far stronger. Due to their lower income levels, they can ill afford the high cost of subscriptions and fees and are thus blocked from sharing knowledge and information.