It’s been just over two weeks since Internet genius Aaron Swartz took his own life. The creator of the popular website Reddit was facing criminal charges for illegally downloading files from JSTOR, a database of academic research. The sentence he might have faced if found guilty (up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine), followed by Mr Swartz’s suicide has sparked controversy across the world, and last week the activist group Anonymous made their opinion known by hacking into the United States Sentencing Commission’s homepage and leaving a declaratory video.
It’s a complicated issue that mirrors the troubled climate change of today’s online world. Arguably the world’s leading cause of globalization, the Internet both creates previously improbable connections and challenges the reach of lawmakers on an international scale. The Swartz case simply renews the long-asked question: is there such a thing as too much freedom?
The Internet is unique in its ability to disseminate information on a massive scale, but what are the implications? While free access to information may seem like an all-win approach to global understanding and growth, there’s a second view that can’t be left ignored. This information age we all enjoy unfortunately is not accompanied by an age of free rent and warm meals. In other words, crimes committed on the Internet – like piracy or unauthorized downloads – are not always victimless, and the creators of content taken without payment or permission often feel the impact of that loss. As Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in regards to Mr Swartz’s activity, “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”
Of course, many will insist the victims of online piracy aren’t victims at all – after all, what are a few losses to a millionaire film star or pop artist? And maybe since the Swartz case concerns academic reports (hard facts, not creative endeavors), his efforts might be seen as a Robin Hood-style of liberating information rather than stealing entertainment. But again – what exclusive rights, if any, do we have to our own hard work? Where do we draw the line between free access and straight-up theft?
Maybe Mr Swartz was making a point, and it wouldn’t be the first time JSTOR has been criticized for its baffling system of academic publishing. And activism inherently demands action that challenges the status quo. But while it would be nice to have the clear-cut lines of “Freedom = Good; Not Freedom = Bad,” our more complex reality will challenge us to think deeper.
What are your thoughts? Have you been affected by internet censorship, piracy or any other issues touched upon here? Feel free to share your comments below.