Just about Anything You Want

Ben Jackson

  • The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz by Aaron Swartz
    Verso, 368 pp, £15.99, February 2016, ISBN 978 1 78478 496 6

In January 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested for downloading 4.8 million academic articles from the digital archive JSTOR, using a laptop hidden in a broom cupboard on the MIT campus. He was 24, and already a respected and influential computer programmer. As a teenager, he had helped develop RSS, a syndication format that led to the explosion in popularity of blogging, and Markdown, an easy to use tool that converted text to HTML. He wrote the code for the Creative Commons licence, which helped distribute work on the internet more freely than traditional copyright would permit. He was also a successful entrepreneur. He could easily have carried on working in the tech industry, where people like him can make millions, but instead he became a political activist, and that’s how he got in trouble. The JSTOR episode led to his facing four felony counts, with a maximum sentence of 35 years; two years after his arrest, he hanged himself with his belt in his Brooklyn apartment.

As the prosecutors saw it, Swartz had used MIT’s network to ‘steal’ papers from JSTOR, but The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of his essays and blog posts written between the ages of 14 and 25, makes clear that Swartz thought this was ridiculous. ‘Downloading isn’t stealing,’ he wrote when he was 17. ‘If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it.’ It’s easy to see his point, but if I download a book or film, haven’t I robbed the artists of a sale? Swartz said this too was nonsense. Bad reviews, earthquakes, girlfriends/boyfriends: arguably all of these reduce potential sales, either by putting us off the work or simply by taking up our time or resources. If we’re going to ban downloading because it reduces potential sales, we could argue that sex should be banned on similar grounds. Most people will see that as a stretch, but Swartz makes the case, more plausibly, about the use of libraries.

Swartz accepted that if you give people the right to profit from their creative work then creative work is thereby encouraged. But, he believed, this doesn’t really apply to academic papers. Journals don’t pay royalties; academics are paid through university salaries and grants. If you’re hurting anyone by downloading articles without paying, it isn’t the people doing the work; it’s publishers like Elsevier and Sage and archives like JSTOR, which don’t produce any of the content and don’t pay researchers or peer reviewers. And since academic research is often funded with public money, isn’t it a bit rich to ask people to pay a second time for the privilege of reading the results? It costs money, of course, to digitise an academic journal and put it online, and to maintain it in a usable form. Even old articles that are out of copyright have to be scanned, uploaded, proofread and made searchable. Physical journals have to be printed and distributed. Peer reviewers and the editorial boards of journals may not be paid, but designers, typesetters and copy editors are. Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher of journals, employs 16,000 editors. Still, no matter how generously you spin it, the numbers tell their own story: in 2015, Elsevier reported profits of £760 million on revenue of just over £2 billion – that’s a suspiciously juicy 37 per cent margin in a world that is supposed to be squeezing publishers from all sides (for comparison, Apple, which is notorious for its large profit margins, last year posted the largest profits in corporate history with a margin of 23 per cent).

Swartz was annoyed by this, but what bothered him more was that these fees prevented people who aren’t rich, or at well-funded universities, from accessing academic research. Without a subscription, you can be forced to pay more than $30 per paper. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organisation, and has done good work to broaden access to research – in 2006, for example, it made its content free to institutions in Africa – but it still charges subscription fees to most institutions. In 2012, Harvard University Library said it could no longer afford the fees it was paying for academic journals, and encouraged the university’s academics to publish in open access journals and resign from publications that charge for subscriptions. ‘If Harvard can’t afford to purchase all the journals their researchers need, what hope do the rest of us have?’ David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, asked the Guardian.

When Swartz was 21, he and three other unidentified authors wrote the ‘Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto’, the text of which is included in The Boy Who Could Change the World. It was, Swartz and his friends wrote, ‘outrageous and unacceptable’ to make scientists pay to read the work of their colleagues, and disgraceful that students at elite universities have access to knowledge while those in the developing world have nothing. ‘We need to take information,’ they wrote, ‘wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.’

The prosecutors used the manifesto to paint Swartz as a renegade freedom of information activist who planned to release JSTOR’s entire archive to the world. Many of Swartz’s supporters dispute this: he may have meant to use the database for his own research – he once downloaded 400,000 articles from the Westlaw database in order to find out whether there were connections between the funders of legal research and research outcomes (have a guess). JSTOR decided it could see Swartz’s point. ‘There are many legitimate reasons why people want to download large data sets for their research,’ it said in a statement. When Swartz returned the documents and agreed to pay JSTOR’s legal costs, it dropped its claims against him, and indicated to the prosecutors that it would prefer that no charges were brought. But the prosecutors weren’t so ready to give Swartz the benefit of the doubt, and nor was MIT. After his initial indictment, disgusted that he was facing such serious charges for what his supporters characterised as ‘checking too many books out of the library’ and downloading ‘a bunch of, like, the 1942 edition of the Journal of Botany’, Swartz posted a few tweets about the case. The lead prosecutor, Stephen Heymann, described this as a ‘wild internet campaign’ that moved the case ‘to an institutional level’. In November 2011, nine more felony counts were added.

There were several rounds of plea negotiations: the jail time on offer in exchange for a guilty plea ranged from three to 13 months. But Swartz wouldn’t accept any deal that involved going to prison or felony charges. Heymann was ‘dumbfounded’. He found it ‘disturbing’ that Swartz would ‘systematically re-victimise’ MIT by ‘dragging it through hearings and a trial’. On 9 January 2013, Swartz’s lawyers received what would be the final proposal: if Swartz pleaded guilty on all counts, he would get six months in jail, but if they went to trial and a guilty verdict was returned, the state would ask for seven years. Two days later, still facing what his family described as ‘an exceptionally harsh array of charges’, he hanged himself.

*

Swartz was born in Highland Park, an affluent suburb of Chicago, in 1986. He left school – a ‘painfully useless ordeal’ – when he was 14, and largely pursued his own interests from then on. Precocity was key to his self-image. When he was 12, he created the Info Network, an online encyclopedia launched two years before Wikipedia, and soon after he was part of the RSS working group; for months, no one knew they were dealing with a teenager. His lack of deference helped to open doors. At 15, he emailed Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford, with a list of suggestions for how to write the code for Creative Commons. ‘Good idea,’ Lessig responded. ‘Why don’t you do that for us?’ Swartz had been at the fringes of the internet’s free culture movement; this was his ticket inside: ‘Creative Commons … ended up flying me out to all sorts of conferences and parties … People were starting to know who I was.’

Although he’d dropped out of school, he was accepted to Stanford, where he studied computer science and sociology. He despised it almost immediately:

The whole thing is a giant privately owned community, like some sort of Disney World. They run the government, the police, the restaurants, the bookstores, the shopping centre, the transportation, the entertainment etc. Worse yet, they track you while you use it all. Everyone gets an ID card which must be swiped to eat, visit the library, use a computer terminal, check your mail. It even has a RFID transmitter in it, so they can track us while we walk … It’s like I’ve woken up in some sort of libertarian nightmare world, where one company has bought up everything and now tells everyone what to do.

Much of this was a reflexive hostility to the corporate, but his experience at Stanford wasn’t helped by his inability to relate to people his own age. ‘Teenage culture is wholly alien to me,’ he wrote to readers of his blog. ‘Yet, out of my desire to serve you, I decided to try to further investigate by attending a gathering known as a “party”.’ Instead of making friends, he would ‘collect data’ by following or eavesdropping on students. When he was called out as a killjoy, he protested that he wasn’t trying to stand above his fellow students, but concluded grandly: ‘I do remain concerned about the way that we are being used, and I will not stop being concerned even if some day it were to make me unhappy and detached. Some things cannot be given up without giving up one’s self.’

After a year, Swartz dropped out of Stanford too. He joined the first intake at Y Combinator, a start-up incubator that provides money and advice in exchange for equity in its participants’ companies. His project, Infogami, a website creation tool, didn’t take off and was soon merged with Reddit, an online bulletin board where users can submit content, such as links to web pages, and vote them up or down. Progress was slow. ‘We had no clue what we were doing,’ he wrote. ‘We had no experience in business. We had hardly any real experience in building production software. And we had no idea whether or why what we were doing was working.’ But either by luck or by trial and error, the site’s audience started to grow until it was attracting millions of visitors a month. It soon became clear that Reddit could direct huge volumes of traffic towards other websites, and Condé Nast bought it in 2006. Swartz checked his bank account: ‘The numbers were big; the money was there. I started grinning.’

As part of the deal, Swartz and his colleagues flew out to San Francisco to work on Reddit in the offices of Wired, but again he found himself in an environment he couldn’t stand. ‘Since I moved to San Francisco I literally haven’t gotten anything done,’ he wrote on the blog. He was constantly interrupted by people who wanted him to play video games or fix their IT problems. He was given a company laptop with tracking software pre-installed. It was too much for him. He started showing up late and arranging meetings outside the office. Over Christmas, he took an extended break to visit his girlfriend in Berlin. He was suffering from a flare-up of ulcerative colitis, and posted a story on his blog about Aaron (later changed to Alex), a young man who commits suicide after suffering unbearable stomach pain. During one of his absences a colleague at Reddit was so worried that he called the police, who found Swartz at work on his blog in a café in Harvard Square. When he finally got back to San Francisco, he was asked to resign.

This wasn’t too painful for him. When he started at Y Combinator he had liked the idea of making money but now that he was rich it seemed less important. And working as a programmer was ‘a prospect I look upon with no small amount of dread’. He wanted to focus on writing and political activism, and having left his job was free to do so. But he still had the mind of a programmer: politics looked like a problem that could be solved if only you had the right information. He was obsessed with efficiency, or how to effect the greatest change – to do the most good – with a given amount of effort. One of the ironies of his life is that on this accounting the fight over copyright dropped well down his list of priorities. ‘I don’t care about copyright law,’ he told his friend Peter Eckersley in 2010. ‘Healthcare, financial reform – those are the issues that I work on, not something obscure like copyright law.’ He had a change of heart about freedom of information more generally: he’d started to notice that the government and corporate transparency he had campaigned for often functioned as a fig leaf for exactly the type of behaviour he’d hoped they would prevent.

Take campaign finance. In the early 1970s, he wrote, ‘people were upset about politicians receiving millions of dollars from large corporations. But, on the other hand, corporations seem to like paying off politicians. So instead of banning the practice, Congress simply required that politicians keep track of everyone who gives them money and file a report on it for public inspection.’ The theory, as Nixon put it in 1972, was that ‘by giving the American public full access to the facts of political financing, this legislation will guard against campaign abuses.’ Swartz wasn’t persuaded. Sure, we can now see clearly that politicians are corrupt, but we knew that anyway. Instead of doing something about it, Congress just made it look as if it had, and thereby diminished the drive for political action. We spend too much time, Swartz believed, trying to get a straight answer and not enough time acting on it.

Part of the solution was to use the internet not just as a way of releasing data but also of organising. In 2010 he set up a group called Demand Progress, which led to one of his most successful campaigns: the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill giving the authorities sweeping powers to shut down whole websites in the interest of intellectual property holders; thanks to an internet-wide protest, the bill was voted down in 2012. Movements like this, in Swartz’s eyes, proved that the collective organisation of people online could be a powerful check on government and corporate malfeasance. But he was also beginning to see a wider problem: that no matter how organised people get and how much transparency there is, ordinary citizens don’t have legislative or enforcement powers.

In 2009, Swartz volunteered in Representative Alan Grayson’s office to try to learn how to get bills through Congress (The Boy Who Could Change the World contains an insightful essay on how Congress works). He became increasingly obsessed with the influence of money on American politics, and inspired Lessig to start his Mayday Pac (the ‘Super Pac that wants to end all Super Pacs’), which gives money only to politicians who work for campaign finance reform. He began to resent a tendency on the left to treat elections as epiphenomenal, as if it were the case that ‘Build a strong enough social movement, and politicians will be forced to do what you want.’ Swartz thought it mattered who was elected, not just how much pressure could be put on them, or the structural forces they were subject to. He cited Bernie Sanders’s remarks, in Matt Taibbi’s The Great Derangement:

He kept coming back to a story about his very first meeting with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. At the meeting, the subject of the Head Start program had come up. Ted Kennedy, who runs the committee, had proposed a modest increase. Sanders wanted more – so he went and had a word with Kennedy after the meeting. ‘The end result is that we got a 6 per cent increase, instead of a 4 per cent increase,’ he said. ‘Over a three-year period, that’s five hundred million dollars more.’

Swartz took this as emblematic of the difference between being an outsider and being an insider: it’s hard to imagine how organising could achieve such a measurably better result so efficiently.

Some of his friends thought he could go too far in this direction. ‘We made each other really angry sometimes,’ Matt Stoller, a friend and political strategist, wrote. ‘I thought he was too sympathetic to establishment norms and he thought I couldn’t emotionally acknowledge when technocrats had useful things to say.’ As he got older, Swartz got less and less interested in rolling his eyes at the establishment and more interested in getting more Bernies on the inside. There are signs that he wanted to run for public office himself, which may be one reason he found the prosecution he faced so devastating. In an article for the Atlantic, his ex-girlfriend Quinn Norton told a story about a trip to Washington after Swartz was arrested. Swartz looked across the lawn at the White House and said: ‘They don’t let felons work there.’

*

Swartz’s death became a political event. His family downplayed the contribution of depression and released a statement declaring that his death was ‘the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach’. In the months that followed, Anonymous conducted a series of retributive hacks of the websites of MIT and the US sentencing commission. A bill known as Aaron’s Law was introduced to Congress to amend the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act under which he was indicted. It stalled, was reintroduced two years later, and is currently languishing, with no indication that it will ever be voted on.

So, in some important respects, nothing changed. But in the field of freedom of information, Swartz’s work has had considerable influence. After his arrest in 2011, he started building DeadDrop (now SecureDrop), open source software that allows people to submit documents anonymously to media organisations. It is currently used by the New Yorker, the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Intercept. Two days before he died, JSTOR started offering free access (limited to 78 articles per year) to 1200 of its roughly two thousand journals. In 2013, the Obama administration asked all federal agencies that fund more than $100 million in research to come up with plans to ensure that the results of that research will be freely available online within a year of publication. For a time, the publishing industry fought the tide by lobbying for the Research Works Act to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research. More than ten thousand academics boycotted Elsevier in response and eventually, in 2012, Elsevier dropped its support.

Open access isn’t a silver bullet. The costs of publishing still have to be covered, and the best-known open access journals shift the burden from the reader to the author with an ‘article processing charge’. Academics have reported receiving multiple emails a day from ‘predatory’ open access journals soliciting submissions in order to garner fees. To increase revenue some open access journals have decided to accept large numbers of manuscripts with, it’s argued, lower standards of peer review. But the guerrilla fight goes on. It might have dented Swartz’s pride that while he was battling his case, someone came up with a more elegant way to make academic research free. On 5 September 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan launched Sci-Hub, a website that makes it possible to gain access to academic journals. Plug in the URL of an article, and the site will bypass the publisher’s paywall by using the credentials of academics at well-funded institutions. It combines credentials from a number of universities: it may have better access than any single institution in the world. Last year, Elsevier filed a complaint against the site alleging damages of $75-150,000 per paper ‘stolen’; Sci-Hub claims it has downloaded more than fifty million papers, which means Elsevier’s claim could run into the billions. However good its case, Elsevier has little chance of seeing any of that money, partly because Elbakyan is based in Russia and has declined to fly to the US to defend herself. A New York district court judge eventually granted an injunction against the site, and access to the original web domain was shut down, but within days it was back online – with a colourful new homepage and international media coverage into the bargain. As things stand, with just a small amount of technical knowledge you can get your hands on just about any scholarly article you might want.