Open and shut: the death of Aaron Swartz

Internet activist Aaron Swartz died Friday. (Michael Francis McElroy / Associated Press / January 30, 2009)

The suicide of digital open-access activist Aaron Swartz was a tragedy for his family and his friends. Swartz, who was 26 when he hung himself Friday, spent much of his short life deeply immersed in the online world. He had suffered from depression, according to those who knew him — and was particularly troubled because the federal government wanted to put him behind bars.

Swartz’s death has provoked a massive reaction online, especially on Twitter, where more than 30,000 tweets had been posted with the hashtag #pdftribute in honor of Swartz’s memory. Many of these tweets have links to academic researchers’ work — the very issue that got Swartz in legal trouble. In addition to Swartz, other advocates of “open access” to scholarly journals also want to see research papers opened to the public, rather than published only in journals, and requiring payment for anyone wanting to read the work.

Swartz, called a “hacker” by critics, had been an active critic of closed information — especially documents kept private by the federal government. He believed that if research was funded by taxpayers, it should then be open to anyone. Swartz was something of an Internet wunderkind, well known as one of the creators of Reddit and RSS, the technology behind blogs, podcasts and other web-based subscription services.

He was  obviously gifted and passionate about his core beliefs about the public’s untrammeled access to information. But his beliefs and activism ran up against the often confusing maze of copyright laws and the penalties for violating them.

In 2011, Swartz was charged with stealing nearly 5 million paywall-accessed articles from an MIT computer archive. His intention, according to prosecutors, was to distribute the articles for free on file sharing websites. Security cameras caught Swartz hacking into the university’s databases.His trial was set to begin in April, and he could have faced several years in prison. His family says prosecution of the case helped lead to Swartz’s suicide.

Strangely, Swartz himself had written in 2008 that while information sharing was a “moral imperative,” he also noted that the law had to be recognized on copyrighted information and that as far as “secret databases” were concerned, they should be paid for before being distributed freely.

And yet the felony charges brought against him by the Justice Department accused him of stealing material that took someone time and often money to create. Swartz himself sold Reddit and its intellectual property.

So, in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide, there would seem to be two issues. One is the overwhelming force of the federal government coming down on individuals, depressed or not, over Internet activism and copyright infringement. Clearly, the government, which reportedly was offering a lesser sentence than the initial 35 years if Swartz would concede guilt, needs to consider just who is being protected in these cases and whether the threatened punishments are equal to the alleged crime. Moreover, the downloading of protected files has become commonplace in the digital age, if not to the extent practiced by Swartz.

But open-access advocates need to acknowledge that breaking into a university network to illegally download thousands of files is an illegal action — and breaking the law has consequences. Copyright law may be a muddled maze, but without it, the concept of intellectual property becomes meaningless.

If nothing else, Swartz’s death should provoke a discussion involving academics, government officials, prosecutors and activists over finding a balance between the public’s right to information and intellectual property rights. Hopefully, this discussion might open doors rather than close them even further.

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