How Free Should Information Be?

January 21, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Policy

Cybercrimes, copyright infringement, piracy. We hear these words all the time—perhaps to the point of being inured to their meaning. Until something jars us out of that fog. Something like the suicide of web wunderkind Aaron Swartz earlier this month.

Swartz was a committed activist for open sharing of knowledge and content online.

New York Times writer Noam Cohen cited this poignant passage from Swartz’s manifesto:

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. […] We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.

After repeated investigations by the FBI for his information liberation activities, he was arrested in 2011 for downloading 4.8 million academic articles from the digital library JSTOR. Swartz was a faculty member at Harvard, where he had the usual limited free access to JSTOR, but he downloaded the articles from a networking closet at nearby MIT. JSTOR declined to pursue criminal charges after Swartz returned hard drives containing the articles, but the US Attorney chose to prosecute.

At the time of his death, Swartz was facing up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. However, as the lead prosecutor told CNN, “prosecutors recognized there was no evidence Swartz had acted for personal gain, and considered that the harshest penalties available under the law were not appropriate for his alleged offenses. As a result, prosecutors told Swartz's legal team they would recommend to the judge a sentence of six months in a low-security setting.”

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the lead prosecutor, further defended her team’s actions against claims of prosecutorial overreach: "The career prosecutors handling this matter took on the difficult task of enforcing a law they had taken an oath to uphold, and did so reasonably."

Behind the tragedy of Swartz’s suicide is the complicated issue of copyright and intellectual property in a digital realm where “information wants to be free. Swartz’s death should prompt students, educators, and all of us to stop and ask ourselves some hard questions. When should information be free? How are the producers of content compensated if copyright is difficult to enforce? What is the difference between selling ideas and selling access to ideas? Where do commerce and “knowledge sharing” collide? These are the conundrums today’s students must ponder, because, as Brand also said, although information wants to be free, information also wants to be expensive because it is of such value. “That tension will not go away.”

The debate is an important one, regardless of what side one takes. Ironically, given the FBI’s case against Swartz, the federal government recently reopened the debate about whether any research funded by a federal grant, which many of the JSTOR academic articles are, should be available free of charge. The tension that Brand referred to between commerce/value and knowledge-sharing is clear in the response to by the two sides in the debate. As Steve Kolowich reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education,

Much of the feedback came from two camps: libraries and universities, on the one hand; and scholarly associations and the companies that publish their peer-reviewed journals, on the other. A casual survey of the letters suggests that the feedback largely breaks along familiar lines—librarians arguing for quicker and easier access to research, and publishers offering suggestions for better access while discouraging measures that might threaten their subscription revenues.

As one publisher put it, the grants to do the research might be taxpayer money, but the publishers who peer review, print, and distribute the articles are private companies with salaries to pay.

The debate will no doubt continue—and it should continue. Unfortunately, it will continue without one of the strongest advocates for open access, Aaron Swartz.

If you’d like to raise these issues in your classroom, here’s a few resources to spark discussion and guide you through the main issues involved.

  • Copyrights and Wrongs:    Students explore the legal and ethical dimensions of respecting creative work.
  • My Online Code:    Students discuss their understanding of ethical behavior and are introduced to the concept of online ethics.
  • Rights, Remixes, and Respect:   Students reflect on the differences between taking inspiration from the creative work of others and appropriating that work without permission.

And if you really want to take a deep dive, check in on Professor Terry Fischer’s site at Harvard University’s Berkman Center on Internet and Society. He just launched an online course on copyright, and though the application deadline has come and gone, he promises to post course materials, including all the readings and recorded lectures, on his site.