Stealing is Stealing

By: Matthew Battles
July 26, 2011

“The real purpose” of the indictment of digital liberties activist Aaron Swartz, write George Scialabba and John Summers at Guernica, “is to terrorize advocates for open access at a time when corporations and their allies in government feel themselves under siege by hackers.”

“Stealing is stealing,” says US attorney Carmen Ortiz — a fatuous assertion, which Scialabba and Summers carve at the joints:

“Stealing is stealing” is phrase-making designed to confuse the legal and moral distinctions between the kind of cyber-crime everyone should oppose, such as stealing credit card and social security numbers, and efforts, like Aaron’s, to make knowledge more accessible to the educated public. Ms. Ortiz, incredibly, asks the public to ignore the motive behind the act. Lawrence Lessig, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, disagrees. “Aaron has never done anything in this context for personal gain,” Lessig told the New York Times. “This isn’t a hacking case, in the sense of someone trying to steal credit cards.”

You’ll recall that Swartz was arrested last week for allegedly breaking into MIT’s networks in order to download nearly five million articles from JSTOR, the vast database of academic journal holdings. Swartz’s purposes in hacking JSTOR aren’t yet known; in the past, he has conducted revelatory research into the funding sources of academic work — investigations that require the kind of data-mining JSTOR effectively rules out of its terms of service. More generally, the content swept up and digitized by JSTOR includes many articles in the public domain, as well as the results of research paid for by public monies.

For academic institutions and public libraries, JSTOR subscriptions are a costly line item; for unaffiliated researchers, the service charges hefty fees to download individual articles. While such material often may be found for free elsewhere, JSTOR’s labyrinthine terms and sheer ubiquity constitute a barrier to overcome — a serious violation of the non-profit initiative’s mission to “use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.” Although JSTOR can be a terrific boon to credentialed researchers, the service hasn’t kept pace with the nature of knowledge production in the digital age. When considered alongside the siloing of current academic research by journals publishers like EBSCO and Elsevier, the barriers of commoditized information to the pursuit knowledge in the public interest are many and formidable; they constitute a taking on the part of monied interests akin to the enclosure of European commons at the dawn of the modern era.

Although Swartz’s peril is real, it looks as though the arrest of the activist, Internet-standards authority, and Demand Progress founder may be a watershed moment in the public awareness of the stakes of the cultural war over access to information. It’s as if America’s mainstream journalists, academics, and intellectuals suddenly started awake, mumbling “hang on — they make people pay for stuff that’s in the public domain, don’t they? Someone should do something about that.”

Scialabba and Summers haven’t been dozing. Essayist Summers is editor of a new edition of HiLobrow fave Dwight Macdonald’s Masscult and Midcult, forthcoming from New York Review Books; Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For?— a question to which Aaron Swartz’s story offers a bracing response.


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