The Critic: The Ide­al­ist puts Aaron Swartz at the crux of the free­dom-of-in­for­ma­tion de­bate

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The Ide­al­ist puts Aaron Swartz’s legacy at the cen­ter of the copyright de­bate. By Joshua Brustein

When Aaron Swartz com­mit­ted sui­cide in 2013, the 26-yearold In­ter­net prodigy and ac­tivist was fac­ing felony pros­e­cu­tion un­der the Com­puter Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for il­le­gally down­load­ing thou­sands of aca­demic jour­nal ar­ti­cles from JS­tor, an on­line data­base. For Swartz, ac­cess­ing the in­for­ma­tion was an act of de­fi­ance against a sys­tem that un­justly re­stricted it. He’s since be­come a mar­tyr for the Free In­ter­net move­ment, which ad­vo­cates for a bar­rier-free Web. It only takes Justin Peters a dozen pages of his sym­pa­thetic bi­og­ra­phy of Swartz to trot out one of the move­ment’s best-known cliches and com­mand­ments, “In­for­ma­tion wants to be free.” To Peters’s credit, he doesn’t let the idea go un­com­pli­cated.

Swartz’s story has been told be­fore, in­clud­ing in a long ar­ti­cle Peters pub­lished on Slate mere weeks af­ter his death. The pre­co­cious pro­gram­mer had a hand in cre­at­ing sem­i­nal Web prod­ucts such as RSS, the tech­nol­ogy un­der­ly­ing news­read­ers like Flip­board, and he was one of the founders of the on­line mes­sage board Red­dit. His rad­i­cal tac­tics as an ac­tivist oc­ca­sion­ally rubbed even those who agreed with him the wrong way. Still, many ques­tioned why he faced im­pris­on­ment for a crime they likened to tak­ing too many books out of the li­brary.

The Ide­al­ist is com­pelling, even if it of­fers no ma­jor fac­tual rev­e­la­tions. In­stead, Peters tries to place the story in the con­text of a cen­turies-long strug­gle be­tween the own­ers of in­tel­lec­tual property and those try­ing to pry it from their con­trol. He un­earths some mem­o­rable mo­ments, such as when John Philip Sousa warned in 1906 that, with­out stronger copyright laws, peo­ple would stop making mu­sic. “Hu­man vo­cal cords would soon at­ro­phy, then ul­ti­mately van­ish, like early man’s ves­ti­gial tail,” he said. (Sousa got the law he was hop­ing for, so his the­ory was never fully tested.)

In de­bates over in­tel­lec­tual property leg­is­la­tion, pol­i­cy­mak­ers have tended to side with the Sousas, who want to be able to make money from the rights they hold. Peters, whose mother was sued by a record-in­dus­try group af­ter his sis­ter down­loaded some songs from Nap­ster, makes no bones about throw­ing in his lot with the los­ing team. In one chap­ter, ti­tled “A Tax on Knowl­edge,” he ar­gues that U.S. in­tel­lec­tual property pol­icy is based on a “dic­ta­to­rial no­tion of cul­ture.” In an­other pas­sage, he com­pares strin­gent copyright laws to waves of zom­bies in a hor­ror movie, “un­able to be stopped, only slowed down or outrun.”

Where the In­ter­net is con­cerned, de­bate of­ten fo­cuses on the unau­tho­rized dis­tri­bu­tion of com­mer­cial con­tent such as movies and mu­sic, aka piracy. There’s wide dis­agree­ment about how much piracy costs the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try in lost rev­enue. The Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica has es­ti­mated it’s as much as $58 bil­lion a year just for the film com­mu­nity, though it backed away from that num­ber af­ter be­ing crit­i­cized by copyright foes and en­ter­tain­ment groups alike. Swartz’s work fo­cused more on us­ing tech­nol­ogy to free aca­demic re­search and pub­lic records, where the ar­gu­ment for free­dom of in­for­ma­tion seems stronger. The gov­ern­ment funded much of the re­search in the JS­tor data­base, which can cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to ac­cess, and the aca­demics who con­ducted it weren’t ex­pect­ing to make a liv­ing off roy­al­ties. An­other data­base tar­geted by Swartz, Pacer, con­tains many doc­u­ments that aren’t cov­ered by copyright pro­tec­tion at all.

As Peters re­minds us, “In­for­ma­tion wants to be free” was orig­i­nally meant as a para­dox, not a ral­ly­ing cry. “In­for­ma­tion wants to be free, be­cause it has be­come so cheap to dis­trib­ute, copy, and com­bine—too cheap to me­ter,” wrote so­cial ac­tivist Ste­wart Brand in 1987. “It wants to be ex­pen­sive be­cause it can be im­mea­sur­ably valu­able to the re­cip­i­ent. That tension will not go away.”

Swartz’s death re-proved Brand’s state­ment. When the news of his sui­cide broke, there was an im­me­di­ate out­cry against overuse of the CFAA, orig­i­nally passed in 1986 and mod­i­fied in hap­haz­ard fash­ion to ac­count for new me­dia, to crack down on peo­ple do­ing things as seem­ingly mi­nor as vi­o­lat­ing a web­site’s terms-of­ser­vice agree­ment. Progress, how­ever, has been elu­sive. Mem­bers of Congress have twice in­tro­duced a bill called Aaron’s Law that would off­set some of the most far-reach­ing parts of the CFAA. It’s never made it to a vote. <BW>

“In­for­ma­tion is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for them­selves.”

−Aaron Swartz

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