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Martin King and Aaron Swartz

January 17, 2013

King Swartz
On January 11, 26-year old activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide, a month before he was due to face trial for having broken into MIT’s computer network in an apparent attempt to download the entire database of JSTOR journal articles and republish it on file sharing networks.  Aaron Swartz appeared to be following the path he outlined in his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

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. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

This is in many ways a remarkable essay, with much to admire and much to deplore in it.  Swartz took on the civil disobedience promised in this essay – as summarized in this account by Orin Kerr:

JSTOR is an organization that sells universities, libraries, and publishers access to a database of over 1,000 academic journals. For a large research university, JSTOR charges as much as $50,000 a year for an annual subscription fee, at least parts of which go to pay copyright fees to the owners of the articles in the databases. The JSTOR database is not freely available: Normally, a username and password are required to access it. But if you access the site from a computer network owned by a university that has purchased a subscription, you can access the site without a username and password from their network. Users of the service then have to agree to use JSTOR in a particular way when they log in to the site; they generally can download one article at a time, but the JSTOR software is configured to block efforts to download large groups of articles.

Aaron Swartz decided to “liberate” the entire JSTOR database. He wanted everyone to have access to all of the journals in the database, so he came up with a plan to gain access to the database and copy it so he could make it publicly available to everyone via filesharing networks. Swartz lived in the Boston area, and he had legitimate access to the JSTOR database using Harvard’s network, where he was a fellow. But Swartz decided not to use Harvard’s network for what he had planned. Instead, he used MIT’s network across town. Swartz did not have an account or formal relationship with MIT, but MIT is known for having relatively open account practices.

In Swartz’ first attempt, he purchased a laptop, went into a building at MIT, and used the MIT wireless network to create a guest account on MIT’s network. He then accessed JSTOR and executed a program called “keepgrabbing” that circumvented JSTOR’s limits on how many articles a person could download — thus enabling Swartz to start to download a massive number of articles. MIT and JSTOR eventually caught on to what was happening, and they blocked Swartz’s computer from being able to access the MIT network by banning the IP address that he had been assigned.

Swartz responded by changing his IP address, and it took a few hours before JSTOR noticed and blocked his new IP address. To try to stop Swartz from just changing IP addresses again, JSTOR then blocked a range of IP addresses from MIT and contacted MIT for more help. MIT responded by canceling the new account and blocking Swartz’ computer from accessing the MIT address by banning his MAC address, a unique identifier associated with his laptop.

Undeterred, Swartz tried again. This time he brought a new laptop and also spoofed the MAC address from his old one to circumvent the ban. Using the two latops and the program designed to circumvent JSTOR’s limits on downloading articles, he started to download a significant chunk of JSTOR’s database. A day or two later, JSTOR responded by blocking all of MIT’s access to JSTOR for a few days.

Again undeterred, Swartz came up with a different plan. Instead of trying to connect to the MIT network wirelessly, Swartz broke into a closet in the basement of a building at MIT and connected his computer directly to the network — hiding his computer under a box so no one would see it. Over a month or two period, he succeeded in downloading a major portion of JSTOR’s database.

Investigators were on to Swartz at this point, however. They installed a video camera in the closet to catch Swartz when he accessed the closet to swap out storage devices or retrieve his computer. Swartz was caught on camera, and he even seems to have realized that he was being filmed; at one point he was filmed entering the closet using his bicycle helmet as a mask to avoid being identified. (Here’s the picture.) Swartz was spotted on MIT’s campus soon after by the police and tried to run away, but he was then caught and arrested. Federal charges followed.

There has been much debate on whether there was prosecutorial overreach on the charges; I do not venture to enter into that debate.  But, I am drawn to juxtapose Swartz’s situation with that of Martin L. King, the great civil rights leader.  Both King’s and Swartz’s lives ended tragically, too short – King from an assassin’s bullet and Swartz from his own hand.  But their approaches towards civil disobedience were entirely different; King was forthright about his civil disobedience and was willing to accept the consequences of his actions – among other things, it raised awareness of unjust laws and policies.  Swartz was also battling some unjust laws and policies, but his protest took a different approach, and his form of “civil disobedience” is more difficult to recognize. 

I do not think that Swartz was standing in King’s footsteps.

Ultimately, Swartz’s death is a great tragedy; and I think many things about the case could have been better handled.  Perhaps the greatest hope for something positive from his death is the chance to revise poorly written laws; there is some initial reason for hope for action in this direction.

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