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Aaron Swartz’s Crusade for Information Commons Essay

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Updated: May 23rd, 2021

Aaron Swartz, a person with outstanding abilities in the field of technology and a political activist, advocated for an open and free Internet. When he tried to release the data from the scientific site, the authorities reacted with unjustified brutality. Swartz was threatened with a fine of $ 1 million and 35 years in prison. This young man solved the problem in his own way – he lost his life.

The film The Internet’s Own Boy tells about Aaron Schwarz’s participation in the development of the World Wide Web (Internet) and the subsequent harassment by the US government agencies, which led to the tragedy. Aaron has been considered a child prodigy: at the age of 14, he worked under the leadership of Tim Bernes-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and participated in many significant projects. The key idea of Swartz was to eliminate inequality in access to information, thus allowing everyone to acquire relevant knowledge and skills.

This genius wanted users to have no restrictions on access to information and saw the goal of his life in making the Internet closer to people. Aaron entered Stanford University, but he studied there for only a year since he was unable to endure the framework of university education. Swartz noted that only university staff and students could receive open access to information of databases, which means that the study in the context of higher education is the only way to learn through scientific articles (Reynolds 105).

This violated the opportunity of self-education, which Aaron regarded as the most productive form of learning. He was sure that the world would be better if he would promote free access to the Internet at the maximum and fought for it to show the generative potential of the Internet. One may state that his actions were consistent with the First Amendment that implies freedom of the press, copyright regulations, and access to places where people can speak and listen.

After leaving Stanford, Swartz founded his own company called Infogami, soon after which he merged it with the Reddit portal. It was an entertainment social news site where users could openly share links to any information they like on the Internet. Aaron’s colleagues emphasized his contribution to the development of the business: everything that the programmer tried to improve became better. Reddit was sold to Condé Nast Publishing House, and Schwartz invested money received from the sale of the resource into the development of the Watchdog service, where all the available information about American politicians was systematized.

In addition, he was a co-founder of Creative Commons, the website integrating information from the Global Community based on collaboration, remix, reuse, and sharing. At this point in his life, Aaron began to take decisive action against restrictions on the Internet.

To understand the controversial nature of Swartz’s actions and views, it is essential to pay attention to the main document clarifying information distribution on the Internet. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act is the main regulatory legal paper establishing criminal liability for illegal actions in the field of computer information. It establishes responsibility for several basic offenses, including computer espionage, committed use of computer technology, unauthorized access to information, deliberate and negligent damage to protected computers, and so on. Currently, the US Congress is introducing a new cybersecurity bill, which provides for tougher penalties for cybercrime and the actual equalization of the definitions of their public danger with real crimes.

The Internet activists believe that since government documents are free of copyright, they should be available to everyone for free. Carl Malamud, the founder of the Public.Resource.org organization, came up with a method for this, and Swartz supported his idea. It turned out that in seventeen public libraries in the United States, visitors were provided free trial access to the PACER database.

Malamud encouraged all concerned users to visit these libraries, download as many documents as possible, and send them to him for display on the web (Constant 241). Schwartz responded to the call and, being an excellent programmer, wrote several scripts that allowed him to download 20 million pages of documents, which was equal to 20 percent of the entire PACER database. It was the first time when Aaron was sued for illegal activities on the Internet.

Aaron Schwartz, known as one of the prominent Internet activists, was faced with a number of corporations profiting from the sale and access to information that should belong to the society because it is paid at the expense of taxpayers (da Silveira 7).

In 2011, a criminal case was opened against Schwarz, accusing him of illegally downloading files from the JSTOR online library (Peters 196). Even though the latter withdrew the lawsuit, the court decided to arrange an indicative trial, threatening with imprisonment for a term of 35 to 50 years and a fine of $ 1 million for downloading files. It seems that as a protest to such a response from the government, Swartz committed suicide and showed the world that changes are possible.

It is important to emphasize that Aaron saw the unlimited potential for self-education on the Internet-based on online scholarly articles, books, and many others sources. He was inspired by the fact that he destroys the boundaries that impede the free flow of information. At the same time, it is not clear what exactly Swartz planned to do with the articles further. He could make them accessible to all Internet users by following the fundamental principles of freedom of information, analyze the data given in the articles, or, at least, demonstrate that this is commonly possible.

From my point of view, the efforts of Swartz were justified as he presented the very possibility of making information free. Indeed, today, only students of universities and staff have access to the scholarly literature, while people with low income, living in remote areas, and having other problems are deprived of the opportunity to obtain new knowledge from online databases. However, I consider that new policies on the federal level should be implemented to resolve the issue with open access to relevant information on the Internet, which fits the First Amendment. Until there are acts and policies that declare free access unauthorized, the actions of programmers similar to those of Swartz would be illegal.

Even though he was considered a criminal by the government, people still value his great contribution to the creation of Creative Commons and information sharing. Personally, I agree with the fact that the existing law on the restriction of copyright and access to information is outdated and needs to be improved. In the context of globalization, the generative potential of the Internet allows making people closer to important knowledge, while it is unfair to limit the access of people who have no money to purchase articles. Thus, the efforts of Swartz were effective and thought-provoking as they made many people ponder over their rights on the Internet.

Works Cited

Constant, Sarah A. “The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act: A Prosecutor’s Dream and a Hacker’s Worst Nightmare – The Case Against Aaron Swartz and the Need to Reform the CFAA.” Tulane Journal of Technology and Intellectual Property, vol. 16, 2013, pp. 231-250.

The Internet’s Own Boy. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, performance by Aaron Swartz, FilmBuff and Participant Media, 2014.

Peters, Justin. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. Simon and Schuster, 2016.

Reynolds, Glenn Harlan. “Ham Sandwich Nation: Due Process When Everything Is a Crime.” Columbia Law Review Sidebar, vol. 113, 2013, pp. 102-109.

da Silveira, Sérgio Amadeu. “Aaron Swartz and the Battles for Freedom of Knowledge.” SUR – International Journal on Human Rights, vol. 18, 2013, p. 7.

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"Aaron Swartz's Crusade for Information Commons." IvyPanda, 23 May 2021, ivypanda.com/essays/aaron-swartzs-crusade-for-information-commons/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Aaron Swartz's Crusade for Information Commons." May 23, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/aaron-swartzs-crusade-for-information-commons/.

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