January 13th, 2013
Update late 01.13.13:
1. NYT misses the point — The article discusses Mr. Swartz’ mission of making information public, but doesn’t refine the point: Mr. Swartz wanted to make public information available to the public. The NYT seems not to query the faulty premise that the copyright/paywall was OK in the first place, something with which Mr. Swartz apparently disagreed. NYT ignores this part and just talks about how Mr. Swartz wanted to make information freely available.
2. Academics are posting their own PDFs on line in a tribute to Mr. Swartz, see http://pdftribute.net/
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This post doesn’t have any images, but is one about public policy. Consider this a pre-emptive apology to our crafters and scrapbookers, our librarians and teachers, our goths and steampunkers, our Brooklyn hipsters and moms in Arkansas, our graphic artists and interior designers, our grandmas and high schoolers, our 9 readers in Greenland and our sun-screened readers in SoCal : This post is a rather bleak one.
We’ve been following the news that a 26 year old hacker/activist passed away by his own hand. A young “boy” who came of age just as Web 2.0 was coming on line, Aaron Swartz was apparently an inspiration and guiding light for many of the movers and shakers in the internet world.
To have a life that burned so brightly and cut so short must be unimaginably painful for those who were close to him. While we have no independent knowledge of any of this, the web commentary details that he was clinically — biologically — depressed. And this vulnerability was vastly exacerbated by legal authorities.
Why do we feel the need to blog about this?
We had never heard of Mr. Swartz.
Of course we have condolences for the family as we would for anyone in this situation.
But this is really a story about public domain.
Aaron’s legal trouble began by his taking a stand on something we believe in — that scientific research reports, paid for by our tax dollars, should not be paywalled. Currently, scientific articles in on-line journals are something like $65,000++ per institutional subscription for a whole library all-you-can–eat to around $20-$60 per article a la carte. This adds up. We do a fair amount of scientific research, and you don’t know what you need until you read it. If you read 10 papers to decide you really only needed one, cha-ching for the publisher. Bottom line? Tax-payer funded research reports are only available for corporations or institutions, not individuals. (PLoS tries to remedy this). Just like health insurance.
Even if you think, “so what, no one understands all that science mumbo-jumbo anyway,” it’s more important than you think. If only universities and big companies have access to scientific information, what about start-ups? Or high school students? Or broke community college districts? Or Haiti? The net effect is that only those who benefit financially from scientific research have access to scientific research. (Publishers have special rates for poor countries, but still, it should be free or nominal costs). We’re not OK with that.
According to reports, two years ago, Aaron used his MIT library access to hook up his hard drive to a scientific publisher database, and downloaded something like 4 million scientific research articles — with the admitted intention of putting these on line for the public, unimpeded. The publishers at first put up a stink. But then everyone settled the matter: Mr. Swartz gave them his hard drive without ever making public the articles, the publisher ended up putting the articles up on line for free, and the matter was dropped, point made.
This was not the first time he had been such a “hacktavist.” Legal documents are also paywalled — by the US government, using a system called “PACER.” In order to access publicly available court files you have to pay by the page. Ridiculous, yes? Or, buy a subscription to LEXIS or WESTLAW for thousands of dollars. Mr. Swartz coded a program so that once you paid for a PACER document it automatically uploaded to a public database. Point made.
In our view, virtually all public data from all US agencies should be available in a form so that programmers and developers can fool with it, making it easier to access.
But, with scienific publications, it was different. The documents were prepared with taxpayer funds, but copyrighted by private parties. The US Government continued to prosecute Aaron criminally. The US attorney from Massachusetts (reportedly with political aspirations) threw the book at him with fines in the millions and decades behind bars. To us, this is particularly galling considering that no federal prosecutor has yet tried to put any banker in jail for, say, LIBOR manipulation or laundering drug money. Too big to fail, they say. So they just go after the little guy. Trial was coming up, depression was coming on, and yesterday Mr. Swartz was found dead in his apartment in Brooklyn at the age of 26.
This is the stuff of dystopian nightmares.
Public access to public domain information is near and dear to our heart — see our “About” page for our “Public Domain Manifesto” — a little high handed to be sure, but we trumped up the drama to make a point: ideas, both good ones and bad ones, you choose, need to be freely disseminated. Once the copyright expires — if there ever was one — you can’t put the public domain toothpaste back in the private for-profit tube.
We had never heard of Aaron, or of his activism or technological contributions. Unknown to us, both this blog and our other one, Neurological Correlates, (where we discuss neuroscience research about people behaving badly) relied on Mr. Swartz’s efforts to keep public domain in the public.
Mr. Swartz had also been a driving force behind defeating legislation that would effectively permit governmental pre-emptive censorship over websites (“SOPA” and other laws). It’s a basic case of pay-to-play. We can’t pay, and so we’d be stuck with the cloud of threatened shut down, with no recourse.
And so we’re re-posting our Anti-SOPA page and post from last year . We had taken it down once the legislation was defeated, but here it is again to remind us what can happen when no one is looking. Thank you Mr. Swartz.;
TL;DR: Mr. Swartz, in the midst of heavy-handed criminal prosecution by those who stood to gain politically, died by his own hand, cutting short his life as a public domain hacktavist.
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“Stop Online Piracy Act”: See our post, No to SOPA. Our main gripe is that the legislation is basically a blog gag order — the law would permit government shut-down of sites before any determination that there is copyright infringement (or no fair use). We think this would be strictly a First Amendment no-no. As said in the noted Near v. Minnesota (upholding the rights of tabloid publishers to publish politician scandals and take their lumps if it was libelous),the main purpose of the First Amendment freedom of the press is to guarantee no prior restraint on publication.You get to publish first, and if you screw up and libel someone or infringe a copyright, you pay the price later. The SOPA concept of a pre-emptive gag order is exactly opposite of what the First Amendment is all about, stemming from Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence (from the Near v. Minnesota opinion, Hughs, J.):
The question is whether a statute authorizing such proceedings in restraint of publication is consistent with the conception of the liberty of the press as historically conceived and guaranteed. In determining the extent of the constitutional protection, it has been generally, if not universally, considered that it is the chief purpose of the guaranty to prevent previous restraints upon publication. The struggle in England, directed against the legislative power of the licenser, resulted in renunciation of the censorship of the press. The liberty deemed to be established was thus described by Blackstone: “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity.”
OK, we’re not a Pentagon Papers publisher or Hustler Magazine,. But we strongly oppose any prior restraint of anything we do. In general. Be that as it may . . . this site is licensed with a creative commons non-commercial attribution license.
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December 23, 2011
Wonkish internet policy post ahead, but we feel the need to show our support for our server provider: GoDaddy.
“SOPA,” the misleadingly named “Stop On Line Piracy Act” (Wikipedia entry here), is ostensibly to protect copyrights from pirates. Sounds good. We respect copyrights — our raison d’être is to provideout-of-copyright images, after all.
But, the devil is in the details. From the reports we read, the terms of the proposed legislation are so broad as to sweep in all sorts of websites, not only the ones targeted (ex-US pirate sites).
And, talk about over-kill: Internet service providers could ask the US Department of Justice to take a shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach and just block a website if they unilaterally felt it was presenting copyright infringing works. Or, if you run a pay-for site, they could block your payment systems, effectively putting you out of business. This flips the burden of proof to “prove you are innocent” as opposed to, “we presume you are innocent and will prove you guilty.” Proving a negative (“prove you are not guilty” ) is an impossibility, making this legislation alarming on all sorts of levels.
We get the intent — protecting copyright works. But this legislation is ham-handed. Not only does it flip the burden of proof to an impossible standard, the limits aren’t rationally related to the proposed purpose of the law to begin with. If we were shut down and felt we were wronged, how would we fight the entire US DoJ? Answer: we wouldn’t. We’d probably put up another site and start over. Or something. And we presume a pirate would do the same thing. So the draconian policing has no rational basis in solving the problem so stated by the legislative intent. Arrg. Pirates.
Corporations in support of the legislation are mostly from the entertainment industry, but there was also GoDaddy originally. Not surprisingly, the online activists gained steam, and so did a proposal to boycott GoDaddy (“GoDaddy supports SOPA, I’m transferring 51 domains & suggesting a move your domain day ”). As if we needed this in our life, we were going to move our domains out of GoDaddy. On the whole, GoDaddy’s service had noticeably improved since the private equity buy-in, and so we’ve pretty much decided not to move to the cloud. But, we don’t have that many domains, and so we thought we’d just move someplace else, and then think about moving our server or not renewing the contract.
But now, GoDaddy has had a change of heart: “Go Daddy No Longer Supports SOPA – Looks to Internet Community & Fellow Tech Leaders to Develop Legislation We All Support.” We don’t question if its customers put up a stink. Or if it has to do with monitizing its patents (and if the web is shut down, one can’t collect a royalty, now can one?)
No, in this holiday spirit, we won’t question any motives. We’ll just say thank you GoDaddy brand new one-week CEO for changing you mind on this, whatever the motives. Even if GoDaddy isn’t anti-SOPA, at least it won’t support the legislation in its current form.
We hope this reflects the thought process of the new GoDaddy management better than killing elephants for enjoyment.
PS: We vote that ”GoDaddy” and its creepy, pornish branding is ditched, and the whole thing is just rebranded already. How about “Elephant Web” and donate to preserve elephants to both change the creepy name and seek redemption after the awful dead elephant PR?