Aaron Swartz and Freedom of the Press

February 26th, 2013
in econ_news, syndication

aaronswartzEconintersect: Aaron Swartz co-founded Reddit.com (one of the top global traffic websites) and Demand Progress (a highly regarded activism organization).  Demand Progress started and led the successful campaign to stop the Internet censorship bills (SOPA/PIPA).  In early 2011 Swartz was arrested on state charges for downloading volumes of academic research journal articles from  JSTOR.  Subsequently the downloaded data was surrendered, with Swartz maintaining his action was intended to be a protest of the restricted availability of research funded by public money.

Follow up:

However, federal authorities filed charges accusing Swartz of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.  He was eventually charged with 13 counts by the DoJ (U.S. Department of Justice).  After continued pressure from the DoJ over two years' time Swartz hung himself in his apartment on 11 January 2013.  From RT Question More on 23 January 2013:

Swartz's death in suicide on January 11 has resonated in the media across the world. It became known that in 2011, US federal prosecutors charged Swartz with a series of counts under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, crimes that could have sent him away to prison for upwards of 35 years if convicted. Swartz, said the government, entered a building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloaded millions of academic and scholarly papers presumably with the intent of distributing them for free.

The case is believed to have provoked Swartz's severe depression. In light of this, his family and friends believe it was not strictly suicide, but rather he was killed by the government.

Swartz's influence lives on after his death.  On Monday 22 February 2013 President Obama issued an executive order through the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) that requires all government funded research reports to be available for free to the public:

The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for. That’s why, in a policy memorandum released today, OSTP Director John Holdren has directed Federal agencies with more than $100M in R&D expenditures to develop plans to make the published results of federally funded research freely available to the public within one year of publication and requiring researchers to better account for and manage the digital data resulting from federally funded scientific research. OSTP has been looking into this issue for some time, soliciting broad public input on multiple occasions and convening an interagency working group to develop a policy. The final policy reflects substantial inputs from scientists and scientific organizations, publishers, members of Congress, and other members of the public—over 65 thousand of whom recently signed a We the People petition asking for expanded public access to the results of taxpayer-funded research.

The petition referred to was sponsored and promoted by Swartz's followers.  Presumably the prosecution of Swartz for downloading the JSTOR files would not have been pursued if two years ago access was ordered to be free for all government sponsored research results.  The executive order could now presumably be a basis for challenging charging for (or restricting in any way) access to any non-classified research results for work which was publicly funded.

This raises the issue of how research will be published in the future.  If journals requiring subscription (which is how most scientific journals financially support their existence) can not carry publicly funded research then much of their former content would no longer be available to them.  If they don't charge subscriptions they can't afford to publish.

It is easy to anticipate that a court case could result, leading eventually to the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the U.S.).  Professional journals could plead for the right to charge subscriptions and free access interests would oppose.  Both sides could argue for freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

A final note: Swartz was considered a coding genius and was co-author of the first specification for RSS when he was only 14 years old.  He was co-creator of the widely used html tool Markdown.   He also created Infogami which merged into Reddit  in 2006.  He was active in Creative Commons, the development of web.py and was a a research fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption, directed by Lawrence Lessig.  He was 27 years old at the time of his death.


Hat tip to Russell Huntley.

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