Swartz: 30+ years in prison…because he wanted access to a library

When I clicked the link about Aaron Swartz’s suicide this weekend, I’d never heard of him. The title indicated he had a significant accomplishment in his life and I wondered why anyone like that would commit suicide.

I listened to this video at Huffington Post: Aaron Swartz Suicide: Reddit Co-Founder Dead At 26.

Anyone who cares about the fact that they can get information and post information freely on the internet should watch the video at the end of the HuffPo article!

Aaron Swartz was instrumental in stopping SOPA, legislation that was grinding forward with a bill to censor the internet, a way government could shut down access to individual websites based on a concept of copyright infringement—something that could happen to anyone who is using the internet to get information.*

But Swartz hungered for more of what the internet and technology could do. One of his best friends shared information on gawker.com about his insatiable desire to learn as well as the fact that he was uncomfortable around people, that he just wanted to read.

Swartz found a way to access the huge stores of information on a service called JStor at MIT (Here us what you get when you Google, “JStor at MIT: Jan 10, 2011 – Because JSTOR has recently reported excessive, systematic downloading of articles at MIT, we need to add a new layer of access control.) He described it as checking out millions of books from a library. The authorities called it theft.

Wikipedia describes the content as: “digitized back issues of academic journals, it now also includes books and primary sources, and current issues of journals…full-text searches of more than a thousand journals, dating back to 1665.” Wikipedia also indicates that “more than 7,000 institutions in more than 150 countries have access. Most access is by subscription, but some old public domain content is freely available to anyone.”

It appears that Swartz didn’t think that was enough. My understanding is that he believed the content should be public domain, that the common citizen should have access to it. At this time it is released according to these classifications: Research, Doctoral, Masters, Bachelors. The Stingy Scholar site says, “you can’t even pay if you want to.” Apparently it is NOT available to “independent” scholars, that are not affiliated with an institution.

You may think Swartz was unusual in his thirst for knowledge, but now that I know this material exists, I would love to be able to browse through it. It’s just a wild guess, but I imagine there are many others, like Swartz, that would love to have access to it. People that want to learn, want to learn all they can in this lifetime. He had incredible technology at his fingertips—who knows what he could have done with it.

In April 2013, Swartz faced the possibility of 30 years in prison for this “desire.” Imagine being someone with a brilliant mind and being told that, most likely, you would spend years in prison, perhaps never being able to contribute to the field of science and technology again. Imagine the company you would be keeping. Your companions would be the most ignorant, brutal men on the planet.

I had a couple of experiences that pale in respect to the idea of going to prison, nonetheless, the feelings were parallel in many ways and, given how I responded to them, I couldn’t imagine how Swartz had to be feeling. A couple of years ago, I moved from a small community to a larger one. I didn’t know anyone and needed to go to an Orientation for parents at a school. In the afternoon, my stomach started to get upset. As I walked the ten minutes or so to the school, I felt my stomach turn with anxiety. I walked into the gym and everyone around me was smiling and talking to one another. No one said a word to me as I made my way to the stands and sat alone, watching people arrive and greet each other. I chided myself for my feelings, but it was incredibly uncomfortable, nonetheless.

I now often experience what people call “empty nest syndrome.” My kids do their own thing most days, but we still share ideas. Some days can be long and lonely, but I continue to pursue the knowledge that I recognized I needed from the time I was in my early teens.

Yesterday, because the radio station I listen to was bought out, I was searching for a new station, and stumbled upon a station that had a interesting speaker, but when that was done, they proceeded with Middle-Eastern music. I couldn’t understand a word. I couldn’t relate to the melodies. I imagined being in a foreign country where I couldn’t speak to or understand anyone. The feeling of isolation was overwhelming, but the sounds also became grating. I didn’t want to have to be subjected to the unfamiliarity.

And sometimes when I listen to the radio I find the “noise” intolerable. When I was at my family’s house, they watched game shows on the TV in the evening and I found it terribly distracting. For me, silence is better. Being subjected to that noise is like Chinese water torture—having something overwhelm your thoughts and knowing you do not have the power to turn it off. And I understand TV is a way many prisoners fill their time.

But what would be the point of thinking for this young man? His reputation was ruined. He could never access the information he longed for or share what he was learning. His company would be ignorant men. Men that would probably regard him, instead, as something for their entertainment. Images of dungeons and the kind of brutality that used to exist, that we think no longer exists, like the Coliseum and the gladiators came to mind when I first heard his story. I imagined the “king and his court” reveling in the idea of throwing a man they wanted to use “as an example” being thrown to “the lions.”

They say he experienced depression and I imagine people will attribute his death to his “medical condition.” But I think he would have gone on to do phenomenal things if he had simply been given a warning, perhaps a reasonable fine, and the opportunity to buy a subscription.

UPDATE: Apparently he was allowed to download a limited amount of material from JStor at one time and he exceeded the Terms of Service limits. But for people who want to research, it is often important to be able to search vast amounts of data. It’s also understood he wanted to share this with the general public. Many people are sharing that this data collection was paid for by taxpayers and should be available to taxpayers. For me, the core of his story is that he was very concerned about government overreach and became a victim of it. Hopefully we will see some benefit come of what’s happened.

* Copyright infringement warnings and fines on the internet: Now at a service bureau near you!
Watch what you post and check out this link if you are copying music or movies: Verizon Copyright Alert System Would Throttle Internet Speeds Of Repeat Online Pirates

The Center for Copyright Information describes their copyright alert system as a “progressive system aimed at educating Internet subscribers about digital copyright and the potential consequences of inadvertent or purposeful copyright violations through peer-to-peer networks.”

2 Responses to Swartz: 30+ years in prison…because he wanted access to a library

  1. Anyone can go to a college or a local university library and access JSTOR. I am an independent scholar and I, too, have been frustrated at the lack of access on my own personal computer, but here’s the thing: someone is running JSTOR. People are archiving all those articles (and there is a MASSIVE amount of articles on that site), scanning them in (yes, there are very old articles on there that needed to be scanned in), etc. Don’t they deserve to get paid?

    Freedom of information is great. Getting stuff for free…great. Until you start figuring out that someone isn’t going to just archive all of this stuff for FREE.

    I’m also a historian, and I’d really like to get paid for the articles I write. You’re a writer, too. It takes a lot of work to do what we do. Why should it be free to everyone? Why should I not get paid for my work? Because in the end, SOMEONE needs to put all this stuff together in one spot to make it accessible to all, and that someone needs to put a roof over their head and feed their kids, just like I do.

    • Writer,

      Thank you for your reply.

      I am continuing to follow posts on Swartz and I saw a post today that said he “did” have access to the material. From what I understand, taxpayers pay for much of what is available at JStor, but I could be speaking out of ignorance on that. But it is a library, and I go all the time to my local library, because I am not rich, to borrow books. Our “government” provides and maintains that content through our taxes.

      I also buy books and have a very precious library of my own. I do want to be able to sell my work, but it will get sold to some and some will borrow, even from friends. I think most people who write would love to get rich, but don’t expect it. We know we have to give and we want to—otherwise we would not be doing what we are doing. I really just hope that my work will benefit anyone who gets access to it.

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