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Aaron Swartz and the Ongoing Battle for the Internet’s Soul

Aaron Swartz, the prodigiously gifted coder and activist who contributed to the development of the RSS standard, the website Reddit, the launch of the Creative Commons, OpenLibrary.org and Demand Progress, was found dead on 11 January, having taken his own life in his New York apartment.

Aside from the idea that one of the internet activist community’s leading lights may have felt driven to suicide by the prospect of facing over 30 years in prison, it’s the disproportionate nature of the potential penalty that Swartz faced and what it reflects about the current nature of the internet that has sparked the most fervent debate.

Swartz was one of the most visible symbols of the power of the internet to spread knowledge into the darkest of corners of the globe and to unite people in opposition to the most monolithic of opponents. While the precise details surrounding his death can obviously never be known, his family and friends have released a statement blaming the US Attorney’s office, who had threatened Swartz with an “exceptionally harsh array of charges.”

The crime in question? Between 2010 and 2011 Swartz hacked into the subscription-only database for academic articles, JSTOR, and used a programme script called ‘keepgrabbing.py’ to download millions of scientific articles, which he planned to distribute online for free. Charged with a series of felonies, Swartz was facing the prospect of spending decades in jail.

So why the online outrage?

The JSTOR archive is used by universities to give their students access to academic journal articles for the purposes of their studies. Apart from this the archive is closed, despite the fact that most of the research carried in those articles is funded by the tax payer. In effect, Swartz is accused of stealing from the archive.

For many people the fact that Swartz was facing 30 years in prison (which is more time then you would get for a whole host of more serious and harmful crimes) highlights how unfair the justice system of many western countries continues to be towards “hackers.”

For others he is a tragic casualty in the continuing battle between the proponents of corporate, legalistic top-down control of the content of the internet and those who see it as promoting peer-to-peer collaboration and the meaningful spread of knowledge.

The ongoing battle for the internet’s soul

ITU conference Dubai

Image by: itupictures

On December 3rd 2012, the warm and dusty winds of Dubai whipped themselves around the attendees of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). As a UN agency, the union and its conference had attracted representatives from over 193 countries to debate the future of the legal system that surrounds the internet.

The media narrative of the event was that on one side of the debate stood Vladimir Putin of Russia, who made a statement regarding his view that governments rather than private organisations (such as the ICANN and ISOC) should be in overall control of the internet. On the other side stood Google, Microsoft and the US government, who argued to keep the internet as a democratic and decentralised network. This narrative is, however, a fairy tale and a mirage.

This narrative reflects the principal political and economic debate of our times: whether some level of state control over the market is desirable or whether the market should be left well alone to operate as freely as possible. This is the same debate we see with regards to financial markets, healthcare, education, transport, production and international trade.

Proponents of government regulation argue that if the market is left to itself, it creates dangerous and unaccountable monopolies, while free marketers argue that government intervention creates market inefficiencies and raises the perils of unparalleled surveillance and monitoring.

In truth, both sides want control over the mountains of data that internet users leave behind, and while private service providers want to dismantle network neutrality in order to be able to prioritize and charge for their content, governments want to further monitor citizen behaviour.

But what about us?

Anonymous hackers

Image by: raincoaster

This is where the ‘hacktavists’ of Anonymous, Lulzsec and Wikileaks purport to come in. While ‘hacking’ or breaking into other peoples computers is an old practice, hacktivism purports to use these kinds of attacks in the name of civil disobedience and promoting a completely free internet.

This list of 2012 attacks and the statement the group posted on the hacked MIT website regarding Aaron Swartz’s death should give you a fair indication of the shared agenda of this disparate collection of distinct groups.

Governments around the world have mobilised their resources against these groups, with over 90 arrests since 2010. Whether or not you think that these groups are fighting government and corporate power in your interests or not, it is interesting to picture the multi-levelled nature of the battle that is currently raging all around us for the internet’s soul as a place of unfettered business, monitoring or informational freedom.

The interesting question is where we, the average consumer and internet user, will fit into this whole intriguing puzzle. It really comes down to what you think the internet is for, and what you think it stands for.

Who do you guys think is going to triumph in the battle for the soul of the internet?

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