It is midnight as I search through Cameron’s library databases to find research for a last minute paper topic. It requests a login ID and password. As I enter my student ID, I am reminded of how having access to such information is a privilege.
While I peruse articles from JSTOR and EBSCO, I find myself questioning why such articles are not simply part of the public domain.
Should access to information be a privilege at all?
The recent loss of 26-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology student and proposed “wunderkind” Aaron Swartz has brought this discussion to the frontlines of current affairs.
Swartz was responsible for illegally downloading roughly five million scholarly articles from the JSTOR database through MIT’s computer system, earning him the name the “Robin Hood of Data.”
In July 2011, Swartz was indicted on federal charges for gaining illegal access to JSTOR with the intention of releasing the articles to the public for free. He was faced with possible millions of dollars in fines and a sentence of 35 years in prison if found guilty. The risk of such punishments has been argued to be what caused Swartz to hang himself in his apartment in early January.
Carmen M. Ortiz, a U.S. attorney, headed the case, arguing, “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Swartz was a co-founder of the popular social media site, reddit, as well as a co-founder of Demand Progress, a group that fights for social justice issues through online campaigns.
At only 14, he helped to create the unmistakable RSS, which allows individuals to subscribe to online information.
Swartz’s views can be understood through the text of his 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto.” Swartz wrote, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.”
His proposal was to make articles such as those found on JSTOR open and available to the public by uploading them to file-sharing sites.
“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks,” wrote Swartz.
While everyone cannot be as ambitious as Swartz, it is important that we take the time to question the ethics of keeping academic information out of the hands of the public.
It is time to push for pay walls to be destroyed, to free information held captive inside the four walls of the privileged world of academia.
Advocates for Swartz’s cause have picked up where his martyrdom left off, pushing MIT to lead the movement of making academic articles available to everyone instead of treating them like pieces of intellectual personal property.
It is my belief that in an ideal world, Aaron Swartz’s dream of access for all to the whole of human knowledge would not only be realized but also executed. However, when there are mouths to be fed and bills to be paid, ideals will never trump currencies.
There may never come a day when everyone will have access to the articles archived away in such online databases; however, there will always be the Swartz’s to remind us of a brighter world: where laws need not be broken for the citizens to learn freely.