“Information Wants to be Free”

Many of you may have heard or read about the tragic news that Aaron Swartz, a co-founder of Reddit, political organizer, and internet activist took his own life on January 11th at the age of 26. Numerous obituaries, news articles, tributes, and criticisms have been written describing the last days of Aaron’s life and how his prosecution for felony wiretapping charges may have contributed to his suicide. Aaron’s work unquestionably changed the world in ways that are relevant to readers of XRDS.

When Aaron was 14 years old he co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, technology that is integral to the way we experience news online. Many readers may remember the uproar online on January 18, 2012 over the SOPA/PIPA legislation that was before the U.S. Congress. Eleven major websites including Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, and Mozilla prominently featured, or entirely blacked out their websites to draw attention to the legislation. Aaron was one of the first to notice and draw attention to the legislation, as he later documented in the afterward to Cory Doctorow’s new bookHomeland. The internet blackout effectively killed the legislation when the U.S. Congress received 8 million phone calls, 4 million emails, and 10 million signatures (at least) in a single day. This was probably the single most successful and compelling example of internet-only activism that has ever occurred, demonstrating proof of concept to naysayers.

Aaron founded and was involved with a number of political organizations that were trying to take activism online including Demand Progress, Rootstrikers, and Avaaz. He was also closely linked to a project covered in the Winter 2011 issue of XRDS. The article was “Using Software to Liberate U.S. Case Law” by Harlan Yu and Stephen Schultze. Timothy B. Lee, another collaborator on the project, recently published a tell-all inside story about the project on Ars Technica that describes Aaron’s involvement with the project.

At the time of his death, Aaron was under prosecution for breaking into an MIT networking closet and installing a laptop that crawled JSTOR, an online digital library that charges institutions for access to its archives of academic articles, and downloaded a massive set of documents. Friends of Aaron recently released a tool called the JSTOR Liberator that follows the same basic scheme that the RECAP PACER project used to “liberate” U.S. case law. When someone, who is allowed to access a document, installs the bookmarklet or browser plugin and activates it, if the document is legally in the public domain a copy is made and transmitted to a free archive so that anyone who does not have access can find it for free.

Although JSTOR and the ACM are very different institutions with different purposes, funding models, and practices there are some very relevant similarities. Both maintain digital databases of thousands of academic articles and both charge for access to the full versions of many of those articles. The ACM has taken many steps in recent months toward opening up its archive. These changes include the ACM Authorizer, which allows authors to post links to their papers on personal webpages. More recent changes are discussed in the February issue of the Communications of the ACM. Until these changes were made, scholars wishing to publish in ACM conferences, journals, and venues were forced to give up copyright to the ACM. Among students we have spoken with informally, this was often a source of frustration.

Scientists and engineers are often motivated by a desire to change the world for the better by creating new knowledge that others might use to innovate. The fact that the most elite publication venues required a copyright transfer that could allow the publisher to lock the content up behind a pay wall was a conundrum with few solutions for those at the top of their field. ACM’s new policy is complex and still somewhat vague. Although it appears to be a step in the right direction, we will have to wait and see about the details of the implementation before placing judgment.

The title of this letter is “Information Wants to be Free,” a quote from Stewart Brand, which refers to the fact that it is constantly becoming cheaper to publish information. In an era in which publication costs are shrinking enormously, how long can business models that rely on copyright assignment to publish academic work remain viable, and how can they adapt? Are there reasons to copyright scholarly publication that extend beyond revenue?

In the coming issues of XRDS, we will be using this space to host a conversation among leading scholars and players in the debate over copyright, publishing houses, and academic research. We hope you look forward to learning more about these issues as much as we do. To that end, we are publishing Aaron’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto in its entirety to open the discussion. The views expressed in the Manifesto are not our own but serve as a provocative starting point.

As this issue is going to press, the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an extension of the White House, has issued a policy memorandum directing Federal agencies to ensure that the results of federally funded research, including scholarly articles, will be freely available to the public within one year of publication. Given that most published research in computer science is funded by the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, this change in policy may have broad implications for the ACM’s publishing division.


Peter Kinnaird & Inbal Talgam-Cohen

On a more personal note, when I was discussing ideas for online organizing and activism with a friend a few months ago, he offered to make an introduction to Aaron Swartz who might have been able to help me with the project or provide valuable feedback. I waited too long to take him up on that offer. So to close, I’d like to call you all to action. Don’t wait to change the world. Do it today. Don’t wait to ask for help from those who are in positions of power or have the right connections. Do it today. Don’t be afraid to fail. Keep on trying. Carpe diem.


Peter Kinnaird

2 thoughts on ““Information Wants to be Free”

  1. Hi – I’m a student,

    I’m also a senior ACM member who has returned to University to study for an MA in history.

    I’d like to know how I can involve XRDS’ attention in the matter of University intranets.

    Like almost all students we (or our parents) pay fees to go to University. We expect to be well taught and supported. Some Universities fail miserably in the matter of their internets.

    I can expand on this but don’t want to yet.

    See http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue62/white#29 for some ideas.


    Peter Farrell-Vinay
    Skype: peterfv

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