U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Statement in Support of Aaron Swartz

(I re-post this from Guernica magazine. My support for Aaron Swartz and my outrage at the government in this case is mine alone. I do not speak for my USIH colleagues in posting this [though I suspect most of them would agree]).

The virtual impunity of the rich and powerful is a widely known fact. Why continue to rub our noses in it?

By John Summers and George Scialabba

“Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,” said United States attorney Carmen M. Ortiz in announcing the indictment of our friend Aaron Swartz, a programmer, civil liberties activist, and Cambridge resident who is accused of breaking into a computer closet at MIT and downloading several million articles from the academic database JSTOR. “It is equally harmful to the victim, whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

For a statement of intellectual property law at its most simple-minded, business-friendly, and injudicious, one could not do better than Ms. Oritz’s fulmination. Aaron, who is 24 years old, faces a maximum penalty of $1 million and 35 years in prison in spite of the (uncontested) facts that the data he allegedly purloined was returned before it was released; service interruption was minimal; and neither MIT nor JSTOR has taken legal action. This is a bogus indictment over a fictitious crime. What explains it?

Politics, for one thing. The real purpose of the indictment is to terrorize advocates for open access at a time when corporations and their allies in government feel themselves under siege by hackers. … Continued here.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for posting this, Andrew! It’s worth noting that JSTOR itself seems at best ambivalent about this prosecution. It is particularly appalling to me that the war crimes of the last administration remain utterly unprosecuted (and largely uninvestigated), while the federal government, instead, pursues people like Swartz.

  2. This is just a really, really disturbing story. I hope it’s only half-true (meaning not as terrible as it seems). Frankly, however, I’m so distracted by the debt-limit talks that I can hardly concentrate on any other news. Thanks, Andrew, for re-posting this here. – TL

  3. I missed why he did what he did? He downloaded most of JSTOR and then returned it? To show that information should be open sourced?

    I have a lot of friends who have worked for JSTOR, digitizing and sorting. I’m very grateful for all their hard work. How would it be paid for if not through universities?

    The proliferation of online databases raises another problem–they are increasingly taking up all of a libraries budget, away from acquiring the books that you and I would like to publish. Does Aaron’s group offer a solution to this?

    I’m not saying that the prosecution of Aaron, given how many people have not been prosecuted, is not a travesty. I just would like to understand more of his point of view and see if he has a legitimate solution to the problem. I think about the limitations on knowledge whenever I teach students how to use library databases. What will they use if they don’t go into graduate school? I’m incorporating some open-source materials as well as books and academic journals in my syllabus for the fall.

  4. Lauren: The fact that vast majority of articles in JSTOR are researched and written by scholars who don’t get paid for their work except insofar as their universities and often, the government, subsidizes such work, is an argument in favor of open access. Matthew Yglesias puts it well:

    “here’s the issue. Right now in academic publishing, what you have is basically a lot of donor- and government-financed nonprofit organizations taking outputs with near-zero distribution costs (electronic journal archives) and selling them to each other. For any one institution, this kind of makes sense. A publisher doesn’t want to give up his fees, which are valuable in meeting the costs of producing scholarship. But on net, it’s a mix of pointless and pernicious. Sale of access to journals helps finance scholarship, but it also raises the cost of scholarship. If everything was distributed for free, the whole exact same enterprise could be undertaken with no net financial loss. But there would be huge potential gains. A precocious 17 year-old could have free access to scholarship. So could a researcher living and working in a poor country. Or even an earnest political reporter who’s working on an issue and curious about what political science has to say about it. When I, personally, come across an article I’d like to read but can’t get free access to, my standard practice is to tweet about it and then someone affiliated with a university sends it to me. That’s good for me and, I think, good for the world. But there’s no reason curious people should need to amass thousands of twitter followers before they’re able to gain access to information that’s been produced by non-profit institutions that are supposed to be serving the public interest.
    Both governments and private donors expend a good deal of funds on subsidizing the production of scholarly knowledge. That’s an excellent idea. Increasing the overall stock of human knowledge is important. But for most of the same reasons that producing scholarship is important, making it available is also important. Open access is important, and I’m glad to see people fighting for it.”

  5. That makes sense. I was talking to a librarian about that here, with regards to the upcoming “Year of China” at the Univ of Kentucky. She said that China is on the vanguard of this and makes almost all of its scholarship open source.

    I guess I got thrown off by JSTOR, because there are distribution costs (it being the one non-html database). However, google books has done the same kind of scanning as JSTOR, but with a very different market goal. I use google books all the time, even when I own or could check out the book, because of the ability to search for specific terms. I’ve picked up many books I never would have thought of because when I searched there was something relevant.

    Thanks for the reminder about open source scholarship.

  6. Unfortunately, Google books seem to be in some kind of proprietary pdf format that is not searchable offline. At least that has been my experience. I can download a jstor pdf and do a full text search on it, but the only way I can search a Google book is through the web interface.

    I have blogged about the dark side of the digital revolution in the humanities. And there is a dark side. All in all, though, open access seems to me to be an improvement. But it’s not a panacea for solving the tangled relationship between power over knowledge and power over people.

  7. He probably would have gotten away with simply downloading lots of JSTOR articles. Physically tampering with MIT’s network infrastructure, on the other hand, was not a very smart thing to do. That’s the sort of thing that will get you in heap big trouble. Like a lot of these internet punks and wannabe martyrs, his sense of righteousness seems rather more inflated than his common sense.

  8. From my lowly position at a university that barely has access to the most basic levels of JSTOR, MUSE, etc., I have resorted to using affiliations with other universities to get research articles that I and probably three other people would want to read. It burns me up that people who do the research that goes into articles on these databases cannot access them. The only group that sees us as a community of scholars is the scholars themselves and we’ve had very little luck making that community operate as well as it might.

    All to say, I share your outrage, Andrew.

  9. Not being cynical, I don’t think getting arrested for screwing around with MIT’s network hardware is a good way to promote open access. As for MIT not pressing charges, I’m pretty sure that’s not how the judicial system works in this country. And someone is pressing charges, since he’s facing two counts of criminal trespass and breaking and entering in Massachussetts court.

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