Unless you are plugged in to the ‘geek’ community, chances are you have never heard of the brilliant Aaron Swartz, his activism or how he was hounded to death by malicious US prosecutors who wielded the power of the broken US justice system as a club.
I have been racking my brains for days how to write this story, because it is an important one and it needs to get out. But, I also wanted to make sure that I connected all the dots that, in my never-humble-opinion, need connecting. I still don’t know how…so I’ll take the brutally honest approach, simply sketching out the ‘skeleton’ and then supplying the links to flesh it out, because otherwise, this post would be a book, not a post…
When you ‘steal’ something, you deprive its rightful owner of its use. As in, if someone steals your car, you can no longer use it for transportation. But, if you make a copy of something, you are not depriving anyone else of the use of the original. Sure, you may potentially limit their ability to monetize it in the future and laws covering that may be necessary. But, it is not the same action and must not be treated as equivalent.
In the past, the way a person monetized their ideas was by charging for the ‘vessels’ or ‘containers’ which were the only means of distributing the ideas themselves. As in, a person would not be paying for the ideas themselves but for purchasing the book in which these ideas were contained. In the digital world, this system is not functional and it is unreasonable to attempt to cripple the internet in order to superimpose the outdated means of monetizing ideas onto it.
It is my philosophical position that ideas are not ‘owned’ by anyone – that their existence is independent of us and that to ascribe ‘ownership’ to them in any manner is immoral. As such, I think that all – yes, all – copyright and the very concept of ‘intellectual property’ are fundamentally wrong and any laws on this very subject are immoral and must be fought against. Yes, I suspect I am more extreme in my position on this than most people and am rather in line with the ideas of the Church of Kopymism.
Aside: Not finding what religions are ‘officially recognized as religions’ in Canada on our government’s website, I’ve called around to the relevant government departments and talked to many of the civil servants in the ‘appropriate’ departments. I know they were the ‘appropriate’ departments because the other civil servants bounced me there… And, the most informed civil servants on this issue have told me that the Canadian Government does not itself ‘officially recognize’ individual religions: rather, if something is officially recognized as a religion anywhere on Earth, it is automatically recognized as a religion in Canada. That means that since Sweden has recognized ‘The Church of Kopymism’ as an official religion, it is legally recognized as a religion in Canada. This means, of course, in no uncertain terms, that all Canadian laws that restrict the free sharing of information are in direct conflict with our freedom of religion laws.
This position may seem extreme, but it has taken me many years and much thinking to arrive at it…and the ‘why’ is, perhaps, the most important reason for me taking such an extreme position…
So – why?!?!?
Because it is precisely by the use of laws – any laws – which assign ‘ownership’ to ideas, by enacting and then protecting these laws that our freedom of speech will be limited in the age where most of our communications are internet-enabled.
Please, think about it – I will not go further into this because I consider it self-evident.
In other words, I consider freedom of speech to be a necessary pre-condition (not the only pre-condition, but an essential one) for a free society.
Societies are built through communication.
The most powerful tool of communication ever build is the internet.
Therefore, communication over the internet MUST be free.
It is a pre-condition for us to live is a free society.
Which brings me back to Aaron Swartz.
I think that most people truly and honestly do not understand the salient point he was attempting to make…
Please, bear with me because I think this is very important.
Older scientific papers were in the public domain: that means that the information they contained was ‘public’ and no longer copyrighted. Spreading the information contained in these articles was 100% legal.
The problem was that this information was contained in physical journals – the ‘vessels’ I ranted on above. So, a company decided to digitize them. Perfectly legal. They digitized them, housed them on their servers and made them searchable, so that the information contained therein would be easily accessible. All this work of digitizing and storing and managing the ‘free information’ costs money – and so that company charged money to access their database of this ‘free information’.
They charged different organizations different amounts: so, an educational institution in Africa would have free access while universities and colleges in richer countries would have to pay. But, once the college or university paid the fee, all its students and staff would automatically be lawfully allowed to access this information for free.
Aaron Swartz was one such person: he had full free access to all these articles, because he was affiliated with an educational institution that subscribed to this database. So, he had full, lawful access to this database and all the information in it.
So, he accessed it.
But NOT through the ‘regular’ path.
Instead, he went to a different educational institution, one which also had prepaid access to this database, and downloaded the articles through them.
Consider the implications: a person who has legal access to public domain information downloaded it through an organization that had legal access to this public domain information – he just did not do it through the organization he belonged to. (Important point – once an organization paid for access, they no longer had to pay ‘per article’ – so nobody was monetarily disadvantaged by this action.)
This, apparently, is a crime so severe, the prosecutors were seeking to put him in jail for 35 years!!!
This is not a joke!
The company that had digitized the information and from whom Aaron Swartz downloaded it did not want to press charges: they may have been annoyed, but they did not think any crime had occurred.
Yet, this apparently merited longer jail sentence than rape, murder and terrorism would have earned him.
And people wonder why hactivists are trying to bring attention to just how misguided our laws are?!?!?
Also, if you take the time to read the links below, note not just what is being reported, but how…
OK – that was the ‘skeleton: here are links to some of the articles about Aaron Swartz.
Federal justice and Aaron Swartz’s death
Aaron Swartz: Idealist, Innovator—And Now Victim
Was Aaron Swartz stealing?
Aaron Swartz’s reckless activism
Law Professor James Grimmelmann Explains How He Probably Violated The Same Laws As Aaron Swartz
There’s more, much more….
So, today, on what OpenMedia terms ‘Freedom of the Internet’ day, please, do take a moment and think about it all..
UPDATE: US Senator Cornyn Questions Holder Over Death of Reddit Co-Founder Aaron Swartz