Copyright, as defined by the United States Constitution is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”. Progress. Not monetary gain, not exclusive holding rights. No, to promote progress. Progress was an idea that Aaron Swartz committed his life to. He realized that current copyright law no longer held the essence nor upheld the original protections it once gave, but now it was a harsh monopoly over information. He believed that information and progress should not be reserved for the rich. It was something that belonged to everyone. He wanted to close the disparity between those who could and could not afford knowledge. He saw that companies are now using the fear of piracy and copyright infringement as an excuse to violate the simplest of freedoms. At a time when information should be becoming vast and more ubiquitous, it is in reality become more locked up and controlled. Aaron Swartz had every right, if it was his intention, to download this information and release it to the public as a form of protest. Our own personal American history was built on this idea, the idea of civil disobedience and freedom of speech. Swartz was a modern practitioner of civil disobedience. He was a hacktivist.
Swartz had always been an advocate for progress and the free exchange of knowledge. After all, that is the very idea that the World Wide Web was based on. “World wide” is right in the title. Knowledge is meant to be for everyone, by everyone. This concept was threatened in SOPA/PIPA. This would be Swartz’s first real fight against copyright law as it pertains to the digital age. It mirrors his later problems in a way, answering the question: can you really shut someone or something down for trying to exchange information? This is where free speech and copyright become entangled. Free speech is not just the right to say something, but the right to hear it. SOPA/PIPA threatened to take away websites deemed as violating copyright law or engaging in piracy. That would take away the free speech of anyone who wrote on those websites and it would take away the free speech of anyone who wanted to access those sites. This idea may not seem too threatening on the surface until we look at North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt, just to name a few. In these countries, internet access is limited. As Americans, would we really stand for a government controlling the types of websites we could see? Who knows what sites would have been closed down and for what reason at any given time. Our rights to access information and knowledge would have been blocked if it was not for Aaron Swartz rallying people to speak up.
This fine line between copyright and free speech can also be seen in the recent podcast lawsuits. Podcasts are the newest iteration of free speech. It is a way to say an opinion, relay important news, or just tell a story. With the right equipment, anyone can have a podcast. Recently, a company called Personal Audio LLC claimed to have the patent to the technology that allows the transmission of these MP3 files to devices. They were demanding that these podcasters pay a fee to continue. Could you imagine if Guttenberg had sued anyone who tried to print a book or newspaper saying he owned the very patent to printing? It would have never happened. People would have been furious that a medium used for free speech could be bought for a price. That is the difference between copyright protection and just plain extortion. As it so happens, Personal Audio LLC dropped the lawsuit because the podcasters they were suing did not have enough money to take. It was never about someone using their patent without permission and them wanting to protect their creation. It was always about making money.
This leads us to the issue we now associate with Aaron Swartz- academic journals and their publishers. To gain tenure and standing in one’s chosen field, you must have your research paper published. The latest advances and discoveries are written down in the papers produced by today’s leading scientists and experts. When they submit their paper for publishing, copyright law will protect the creator’s paper and their work, right? Well, yes and no. When the researcher hands over their papers, research often funded by American tax dollars, they give all rights to the publishing company. Some publishing companies have even started charging these researchers to publish their papers. Now that the paper is in the publisher’s grasp, they control who has access. For millions of dollars, access is given to students and professors at universities and colleges who can afford it. The question is, what about everyone else? Something does not seem right. A law once used to protect the creator is now locking away information, information that we have all paid for. And the creator has lost their freedom of speech. A work that is theirs, an item they created, is now controlled by someone else. Their speech is being limited because of copyright. Something does not seem right, but what is it?
The problem is simple and even the Department of Justice’s Cyber Crime Law states it plainly: you can copyright the expression of an idea, but you cannot copyright the idea itself. That seems fair, but when big publishers lock up their papers and make it available to only a select few, they minds of well be copyrighting ideas. They are using the fear of piracy and digital downloads as excuses to put an even tighter grasp on these works. Think about it. You can go to a bookstore and thumb through a book or magazine. All copyrighted material. We can read those ideas and leave without purchasing anything, but we still have attained that information. Is that a crime? Should the book snap close if you read more than three pages? Should you not even be allowed to read anything until you purchase it? What about free and public libraries? Should they now be considered in violation of this new interpretation of the copyright law? Copyright law, even though it remains updated, is still sorely out of date. It seems more that these laws have forgotten about the creator’s words and work being misused, and are now focusing on the rights of big business.
That is where Swartz drew the line. He was always looking to what could be done to improve on something and to make it better. He saw that this knowledge base that we should be able to share collectively was being controlled and released to only a select few. Everyday people could not have access to these ideas. That is why he did what he did. As a legal guest on MIT’s network, he downloaded these papers. He did nothing illegal when he changed his IP address and downloaded more. He did not commit fraud, steal, or extort. His hacking, if we can even call it that, was not a crime. It was more than justifiable. He just downloaded information, information that he believed was a basic human right to have access to. His focus was not on the actual written work, but the ideas that these works expressed.
The copyright issue was settled civilly with the publisher JStor, but that still left the matter of the Cyber Crime Laws Swartz supposedly broke. Hopefully, as a nation, we can say that this law is one of the only laws based on a movie. It was a knee jerk reaction to a film based on someone who accidentally hacks into a military computer, and thinking it is a game, almost starts World War III. Obviously the law has grown since then to deal with reality, but the law is so broad and murky, normal people have no clue they may be breaking it every day. Did you lie on that dating site? Oh boy, are you in trouble. Have you recently agreed to a website’s “Terms and Conditions”? Maybe you should get a lawyer, just in case. Aside from that ridiculousness, the law must allow for leniency. There is obviously a difference between hacktivism and cyber crime. People who are stealing credit card numbers and identity to defraud? Cyber crime. Hacking a system to prove a point or reveal an injustice? You guessed it, hacktivism. It is like saying someone who protests is as dangerous as a murderer, or a tiny woman who does not want to give up her seat on the bus should be locked up with hardened criminals. Yes the law is law, but we all know the punishment must fit the crime and that intentions do matter.
Just as the intentions of the hacktivist Edward Snowden should matter. Like Swartz, he was someone who saw an injustice and could not let it go on. The world could debate for years whether what he did was morally responsible, but he saw that our fourth amendment rights were being violated and took action. We have the right to be protected from unlawful search and seizure. If an officer comes into your house without cause or warrant, it is pretty obvious that is unlawful. If a physical wire tap was found on your phone or if the mail from your mailbox was being opened by authorities without cause, there would be no question that that violates law. Just because it is the electronic opening of our mail or the electronic records of our phone conversations being recorded, does not make it any less unwarranted. Snowden, like Swartz, saw that the digital world was allowing for abuses that would never before be tolerated. Snowden could not stop it, but he could bring it to light. That is the difference between cyber crime and hacktivism. He did what he felt was right to bring an injustice to light, not to extort or fraud anyone. Like Swartz, he did what he did to inform.
The unfortunate matter remains. One that engages in civil disobedience, or our modern hacktivism, must be ready to suffer the penalties of the law. It is heartbreaking to think that those among us, like Aaron Swartz, someone who should have been held up high and revered, should have to suffer. He suffered for his intelligence, for his visions of a better today, and for his part in bringing injustices to light. We must remember that Swartz’s work was never in vain, and always be cognizant ourselves of what is right and wrong in our own digital worlds.