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john wihbey

Aaron Swartz and the cause of openness

One year ago, computer programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment on the eve of his trial in federal court. He faced years in prison for using MIT’s open network to download millions of articles from JSTOR, a paid academic subscription service.

From Congress to Twitter, Swartz’s death sparked outrage because of perceived overzealous prosecution. It highlighted a growing conflict between the ideals of Internet freedom and more assertive cyber-security demands by law-enforcement interests. As “hacktivism” has become a resonant cultural theme since Swartz’s death, his actions have been conflated with those of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning. This misses something subtle and substantive about Swartz.

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His posthumous celebrity aside, two ideas that guided much of his short life’s work are worth considering: academic open access and open government.

A powerful line of inquiry informed Swartz’s thinking: What should be in the public domain, and what might properly remain closed or proprietary? These are not abstract issues: Access to knowledge empowers people in a very real sense — and the lack of access disempowers them. Increasingly, the status of information becomes a question of equality, and a moral issue.

The concept of “open access” was born long before Swartz downloaded that first set of JSTOR articles in fall 2010, but has accelerated since. Research suggests that perhaps half of all new studies can be accessed for free, but important material remains costly. Even large libraries struggle to pay escalating fees from publishing companies.

The Pew Research Center has found that nearly three-quarters of Americans look for health care information online; a quarter of those report running into an online paywall. Only 2 percent end up paying the fee demanded by publishers, often $30 or more for a study. The National Institutes of Health database now houses more than 2 million open articles, but more than 20 million are locked away elsewhere.

Open government was also an area of intense interest to Swartz. He worked to improve access to public-domain materials — for example, downloading and providing free access to federal court records, for which the government had been charging. In the Obama era there has been much hype around open government, yet progress has been halting. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that the information practices of the Federal Election Commission, a crucial window into our political campaigns, remain woeful. Even good-faith technical efforts, such as Data.gov, have had mixed success.

The Sunlight Foundation, a leading transparency organization, continues to find myriad problems around basic issues such as federal spending data. Recently, it had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to figure out which sort of government data sets even exist. Swartz found the FOIA system both inadequate and Byzantine. He was not alone. In a recent report for the Committee to Protect Journalists, former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. notes that FOIA requests continue to face “denials, delays, unresponsiveness, or demands for exorbitant fees, with cooperation or obstruction varying widely from agency to agency.”

Steven Aftergood, the director of the Federation of American Scientists project on government secrecy, has spent decades prying out reports from the Congressional Research Service. These documents, paid for by tax dollars, are some of the highest-quality summaries on domestic and foreign matters. Neither contains secrets, but neither is public. “What we need and don’t have is a kind of metric for defining the value for certain classes of information for democratic governance,” Aftergood says.

Swartz focused on disseminating vital facts, especially those already in the public domain but wrongfully kept from the public. His programming work helped create the RSS syndication protocol, the news-sharing site Reddit, and the Creative Commons licensing project. He later turned to political activism around Internet freedom issues. Swartz worked to create technology that could allow sources to leak information anonymously.

In a blog post contemplating acts of civil disobedience and how they might be justified, Swartz wrote, “thinking about these questions — as opposed to blindly following rules — is what it means to be a moral person.” His deeds, however flawed, and the issues they raise continue to demand our moral attention.

John Wihbey is managing editor of JournalistsResource.org, a project of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, and a lecturer in journalism at Boston University.
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