Aaron Swartz should not be dead right now. If you haven’t heard of him by now, here’s a quick rundown. On Jan. 11, the 26-year-old committed suicide in his Brooklyn apartment. Swartz was facing upcoming prosecution and potentially extensive jail time for an action he never went through with. While using Massachusetts Institute of Technology hardware and his status as a Harvard University fellow, Swartz accessed mass quantities of resources ranging from academic articles to newspaper archives from JSTOR. The not-for-profit database can be accessed only by paying a large fee. Those using JSTOR are mostly students at universities and colleges paying millions for access to the database. A report of 113 institutions in 2008-2009 showed a median payment of $5 million. If you’d like to learn more about JSTOR, Suffolk students can access it through the Sawyer Library website.
Swartz had planned on releasing the files for free through P2P websites, similar to how movies and music are illegally downloaded every second. He never went through with it.
Swartz is also known for helping develop RSS technology and the website Reddit. In addition to that, Swartz was a huge opponent to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which takes the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and turns it up a few notches. SOPA would have easily created an Internet blacklist, taking down websites which hosted copyrighted material — it did not specify whether websites hosting materials for non-commercial, educational purposes would be immune. With SOPA, even libraries would be at risk. About a year ago, Swartz helped mobilize Internet users, companies, and even key organizations such as Wikipedia and Google, against the act. Through Reddit and Demand Progress, an advocacy group, the Internet became flooded with protest. SOPA was voted down.
Swartz believed in the free flow of information. In the information age, anyone with access to the Internet should be able to have access to all of the knowledge contained within. How can innovation grow when only the top percentage of peoples can access the knowledge of the past? The Internet is not only the greatest innovation of our lifetime, but of the entire history of communication since language was first introduced. Knowledge must be democratized — it costs almost nothing to spread and inform. Sure, there is a right to publication by copyright owners — people make a living off of that. The free flow of information is such a grand idea that there must be a way to work through intellectual property and allow the world to learn.
Swartz could have faced more time in jail than a pedophile, a tragic commentary on the current state of our country’s justice system. This not only shows the “Invisible Hand” at work, but just how far the government, in this case US Attorney for Massachusetts Carmen M. Ortiz, will use our tax dollars to prosecute a cause which would educate the world. There is now an investigation into Ortiz, which begs the question: Did she want to make an example out of Swartz before his idea caught on? And: Why?