Jan 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz: a martyr for info-freedom fighters?

Aaron Swartz was a hacker in every sense of the word. His death -- at just 26 -- is a tragic loss for technology's bright young things and raises questions about the fight for freedom of information on the internet.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

Aaron Swartz With the death of bright and bold Aaron Swartz on Friday, far too young at 26, the internet lost a sharp mind -- but the info-freedom fighters gained a martyr. A whirlpool of words about Swartz's achievements and apparent suicide has already surged across the internet, a tsunami washing out of its geekier nether regions to splash the heights of the mainstream media. There's no need for me to dwell upon his contributions to technology, including the RSS protocol at age 14. Nor the merger of his Infogami wiki platform into the social news aggregator Reddit at age 19, which was later sold to Condé Nast. Nor his political work in gathering a million supporters to help stop America's controversial copyright-defending SOPA and PIPA legislation just one year ago. Nor will I dwell upon Swartz's battle with depression, though such battles seem far, far too common amongst the bright young things who create the technology we take for granted in this glorious digital century. Silicon Valley and its imitators need to take a good long look at themselves there. No, I'll seek some early signs of how Swartz will be seen symbolically in the not-too-distant future, of what his life and death will be seen to "mean". Swartz was a hacker, both in the original sense of someone who pushes technology beyond its perceived limits to achieve new things, and in the newer sense of someone who, um, "liberates" information. He was a young man who "looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn't necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult", his uncle Michael Wolf told The New York Times. Back in 2004, before he'd even started college, Swartz was already driven to change the world to fit that logic. As he told Wired:
"The law seems really interesting to me. It's a system of rules, like computers are, and you can hack it by finding the implications of those rules. Go to a judge, show your hack, and the judge has the power to change the world based on your conclusions."
Swartz hacked copyright law. His focus was documents that he thought should be freely available but which were locked up in databases that cost money to access. He wrote in 2008:
"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitised and locked up by a handful of private corporations... sharing isn't immoral -- it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy."
In 2009, Swartz downloaded US Federal Court documents from the PACER database and released them publicly. The FBI investigated, but no charges were laid. Then in July 2011, Swartz was charged by Massachusetts police in relation to downloading four million academic journal articles from JSTOR, a digital archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. JSTOR had settled their civil claims against Swartz even before the criminal charges were laid, and have even published a brief tribute. But the criminal prosecution continued and even escalated. The number of charges laid was increased from four to 13, including wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer -- charges that could have resulted in 35 years in jail. It seems clear to me that Swartz was to be made an example of in the war against copyright infringers. You don't need to be one of the internet's bright young things to understand why he might have chosen to press the eject button. Swartz's family wrote in a statement:
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach."
Swartz represented one of the geekworld ideals: a precocious programmer who became wealthy from an internet start-up and who fought for information freedom. In that fight, he chose his targets wisely and, I think, understood the risks. Yet amongst his fans there will be many with somewhat less sophistication. "Affiliation with MIT right now, even as a student, looks to me like affiliation with the Nazi youth," wrote a commenter at Hacker News. Hyperbole? Probably not. Every street demonstration attracts those for whom any adrenalin-filled occasion to fight the man is good enough. Similarly, the story of Swartz's fight with "the government" is a good-enough for those who fail to differentiate between his battle for academic freedom and open access to public documents and their own battle to watch the latest episode of Girls. Just as this story was filed, there were unconfirmed reports that MIT's websites have been taken down by denial of service attacks. Wrong target, guys. If there aren't already T-shirts on sale with Swartz's image as Che Guevara, black beret with red Creative Commons CC logo replacing the socialist star, just close your eyes and count to 10. *If you are in need of help or information visit, call Lifeline on 131 114 or visit this page for a detailed list of support services

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17 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz: a martyr for info-freedom fighters?

  1. Andrew Houston

    Great article

  2. Nathan Scrimgeour

    Scott, as the article detailed, one of the main targets of Aaron Swartz’s activism was the academic journal publishers.

    I am a recently graduated PhD student. I worked for 5 years with my colleagues, and apart from my thesis also produced papers that have been published in reasonably high impact journals within my field. My laboratory and my stipend were not funded by any journal publisher. In fact, once approved for publication, any lab had to pay a small fee to a journal to actually get it to published. Not a cent is returned to the lab from the publisher in return for subscribers accessing our work.

    We only publish in this way because that is how scientific output is measured. Without publications in good journals there is no grant funding, no job beyond our current 2-3 year contracts, no reputation within the scientific community. The publishers charge huge subscription fees to academic institutions, who have no option but to pay or leave their staff without access to important knowledge and uncompetitive. Hopefully this is changing with the founding and growing success of open access academic journals such as PLOS ONE, but there is a long way to go before it begins to match the Sciences and Natures of the world, and a lot of already published work locked up under licence.

  3. Patriot

    If they’re so darn clever why do they need to be stealing other peoples information? If it’s so easy why don’t they just make their own?

  4. oldskool

    “If they’re so darn clever why do they need to be stealing other peoples information? If it’s so easy why don’t they just make their own?”

    I for one am ashamed that the Australian education system did not do more to help people with such poor reading comprehension skills finish school.

    You did finish school?

  5. Scott

    “My laboratory and my stipend were not funded by any journal publisher”

    Not directly, but indirectly, funding of labs and the like are a result of scientists having their work published. You don’t think that Science Journals add any value to a scientist/lab?

    Journals like “Nature” and “Science” are a cross between ratings agencies, retailers and marketing firms for Scientists and their research. If you get published in these mags, not only does your name get put at the forefront of key stakeholders (and people with deep pockets in regards to funding), it is also a validation of your work and a stamp of quality. In a world of fraud and junk science, what could be more important than that?

    There are other options to publishing in a journal of course. Self Publish. Go into industry, focus on applied research etc. Even monitorising your research, by applying for patents may be an option for some.

    As for the journals themselves, it takes a fair bit of money and time to organise peer review, edit, publish etc. Their stamp of quality has value as well. They should be able to earn a crust from that.

    Those that hope for open access for all science research are doing their profession a disservice in my opinion. It will bring on the commoditisation of science and reduce funding in general. If something can be had for free, why would anyone (other than increasing cash strapped governments) invest money in the creation of it.

  6. Nathan Scrimgeour

    As far as the costs and services provided by journals:

    The main service a journal provides is peer review. Of course this does take some organisation, but the editing and peer review is actually undertaken by scientists volunteering their time (or, more accurately, doing it in return for the prestige that editing and reviewing for a good journal brings). This is a highly questionable practice when you consider the profit margins of high end academic publishing companies, much more than just a crust. There are other costs of course; typesetting, copy editing, distribution etc… though a disproportionally large portion of journal budgets is print distribution, considering that I don’t know any one who actually bothers to pick up a hardcopy journal rather than download the articles they want through their institution’s library subscription. The hard copy distribution part of the business is a relic of the pre-internet past. Yet they spend 10 times as much on print than they do on electronic distribution.

    You’re right about one thing – publishing in Nature or Science is thought of as a stamp of quality and importance. What does that stamp actually mean though? Tougher peer review? Not necessarily, Nature and Science have had their share of poor/fraudulent papers ( Anecdotally, I have received more useful review comments from lower end journals than from higher (not that I have submitted to anything as high tier as Nature). Acceptance in Nature, assuming it is judged to have used sound methodology and has been well prepared, is dependent upon the perceived importance of the article – dependent on the reputation of the author (note that it is NOT a double blind review process), what is a hot topic at that point in time, the editor’s opinion etc. If I could somehow get a name like Rod Mackinnon to be a co-author on a paper I write without him having a shred of influence on it, its chances of being in Nature would skyrocket. So the journal’s main value-adding to science is prestige, but that itself doesn’t add anything to the quality of the paper.

    By comparison, open access doesn’t necessarily mean that the peer review is any less rigourous in its peer review. If we take PLOS ONE, which does not attempt to decide the importance of a paper, as an example, 30-40% of submissions are rejected outright, and it seems anecdotally that reviewers are as thorough as anywhere else you will find. PLOS lets the readership decide on the importance of a paper, and in this age when all peer reviewed work is indexed in databases such as PubMed, you don’t need a great journal to be visible. That said, despite the huge volume of articles published in PLOS ONE, it still has an impact factor of ~4.5 (the measure of how often a paper from that journal is cited, on average), and 83% of the papers are important enough to have been cited by others – much lower than what you’d find for the highly selective Nature (~35 & 98%), but still more than respectable. Once approved for publication by the review process, the costs of the typesetting, electronic distribution etc. are covered by the authors, a flat rate of ~$1500 per paper for PLOS ONE, not that much more when you consider the per page/colour image charges to authors for subscription journals. It isn’t a perfect system yet, but it is still in its infancy.

    Self publishing, bypassing the peer review standards, and not getting listed in those databases, isn’t a way to get your work seen unless you have a ton of reputation and/or a ton of money to make it happen. Ironically, that wont happen until you’ve been published in a high tier journal many times…


    On the matter of the philosophy of open access publishing and it’s effect on funding:

    You’re completely overlooking the importance of basic science, which makes up a huge proportion of research in general, and of the research published in Nature & Science. It has no economic value of its own, but without it there are no patents, is no applied science, no industrial applications. Unless there is a patent to be had at the end of it, why would anyone privately invest in research with the current publishing model? There are very few instances of fundamental discoveries being made by or in partnership with private enterprise, and where it has happened, attempts to commercialise them have been banned in the public interest (cf. Celera – Human Genome Project). Governments and not-for-profit organisations (e.g. Cancer Council, Heart Foundation) foot the bill for basic research, as they should. Since the public are far and away the biggest investors in this science, why shouldn’t the information gained from this researched be shared, free to the public?

    Under the current publishing model, there is still an ethical obligation for privately funded research to be published in peer reviewed journals too, even if it costs to access it. The most expensive journals cost ~$20000/year for institutions, or $35 to buy access to an individual article, infinitesimally cheaper than generating the paper(s). They usually just withold it for up to 18 months if there are commercial considerations – not completely ethical, but happily ignored in consideration of the economic realities. How does an open access model harm investment when this is the current way of doing things?


    So, in conclusion, we have scientists who
    – provide the content for journals, free of charge.
    – provide the expertise for peer review, free of charge.
    – pay to get the content into journals.
    – pay to access the content of journals.

    And publishers who
    – organise the peer review
    – edit
    – distribute (to those who pay)
    – collect exorbitant subscription fees that have increased at four times the rate of inflation (

    At least record labels & fiction publishers pay a royalty to their content providers…

  7. alistairj

    Hear, Hear Scrimgeour

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