The recent suicide of 26-year-old computer whiz, Internet activist and hacker Aaron Swartz, who was facing federal prosecution for illicit use of online data, has given new passion to the debate about information access.
Despite his tragic fate, Swartz should not be glamorized as a hero or a martyr, and the prosecutors should not be demonized as jackbooted thugs. But it is also true that when it comes to intellectual property and especially digital information, we need better laws and corporate policies.
Swartz's alleged crime was repeatedly downloading massive amounts of scholarly articles from the JSTOR (Journal Storage) digital library by using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After MIT discovered his activities, Swartz repeatedly circumvented the school's efforts to block his access, finally getting inside a computer closet and wiring his laptop directly into the network. He was caught by a hidden camera.
Swartz was a crusader for total freedom of information, determined to "liberate" the articles JSTOR provided for subscription fees. (Shortly before Swartz's suicide, JSTOR began to offer individual users the option to read, but not download, three articles a month for free.)
Facing 13 felony charges of computer fraud, Swartz was offered a plea deal that would have required a prison term of four to six months, but he staunchly rejected any offer that entailed pleading guilty to a felony or serving any time. If he'd been convicted, he faced as much as 35 years and a $1 million fine.
The punishment seems shockingly excessive. Still, Swartz's principled defiance had a major flaw: Those who choose to engage in civil disobedience must be willing to face the consequences.
What's more, the principle -- "information wants to be free" -- while appealing, is misguided. Producing and processing information involves intensive human labor, and most of the people who do such work want to be paid -- and usually cannot afford to do it for free. Wikipedia articles may be written by volunteers whose work is a labor of love, but they almost invariably rely on traditional resources such as books and articles. Free information may ultimately mean the death of quality information.
Anyone who wants to read scholarly articles for free can go to a library and read them the old-fashioned way. Just because JSTOR did the work of making the material accessible from my computer doesn't mean I shouldn't have to pay for the convenience. The insistence that everyone must have complete free access to the product of others' intellectual work has an unpleasant whiff of entitlement.
That said, many corporations have been slow to adapt to the digital age. Much conflict could be avoided by allowing users to obtain information easily and at reasonable prices. The ability to buy music files cheaply online has vastly cut down on illegal downloads. Online databases for scholarly articles have typically required individual users to pay exorbitant fees -- as much as $30 per article -- when a lower price might well mean higher revenues. Some free access would be beneficial as well; JSTOR's first steps in that direction should have been made much sooner.
There should also be a reassessment of intellectual property rights when infringements don't hurt the owners' economic interests. Fan-made online videos based on films and televisions shows, sometimes blocked on complaints from media corporations, won't keep anyone from watching the movie or buying DVDs of the show, for instance; indeed, they may spark a potential viewer's interest.
Laws and policies must catch up with the information revolution. But for that to happen, revolutionaries should seek pragmatic reforms, not anarchy.