The music industry has been the harbinger of changing ethical norms in the online world for a long time, mostly because it was the first of the mass media for which the online experience was of sufficiently high quality that it was worth [downloading | stealing | streaming]. Now movies are at similar risk because of bandwidth availability, and recently we've heard about the ISPs assuming the role of digital hall monitors to police intellectual property use. This is rich irony indeed. The likes of Comcast, AT&T, Verison, and their ilk cast in the role of enforcers of public morality? And Rupert Murdoch really just wants a 'fair and balanced' world of journalism. Uh huh.
The ethical challenges of information distribution in the academy just lurched into public view in a fairly dramatic way with the arrest of a 24 year old digital phenom, Aaron Swartz. Hardly a household name, but the case caught my attention as I have 'known' him, at least his online personage, for more than a decade.
Aaron was a participant in Dublin Core working groups at the tender age of 13. I recall finding his posts on contentious DC architecture issues as sensible and well-reasoned. Imagine my surprise when I learned the author's age! His posts were measured and mature, a convincing impersonation of adulthood, and his contributions were always positive.
He went on to other activities -- Reddit, The Open Library Project, and online activism (eg., DemandProgress.org). I confess my recent knowledge of Aaron is scanty at best, but in my limited dealings with him, I found him eager to contribute and to do good things.
Now he is embroiled in a bizzare distortion of the open access movement, accused of unlawfully 'stealing' large numbers of academic journal articles from JSTOR. What does it mean, to 'steal' digital assets, when these assets remain available to others? I suspect, from the murky descriptions of his actions and motives in what passes for news, that Aaron sees himself as liberating assets paid for by citizens and held artificially hostage behind the monetization barriers of corporate greed. JSTOR is hardly an icon of corporate greed, but still, the information -- research results which have the potential for improving lives, are quenched by limitations on access.
It is not theft of assets at issue, nor, I suspect, disruption of computing systems, but rather the disruption of business models which is at the heart of this problem. The alignment of business models (or rather, their misalignment) is at the heart of many of the problems that emerge in the digital revolution we are experiencing. States trying to tax online merchants, content 'piracy', the pernicious behavior of ISPs who also are increasingly content managers... these problems and others have to do with business models that are at odds with the best interests of society, or, in some cases, business models left over from the pre-digital era, for which suitable transitions to digital models have not yet emerged.
I am wholly in sympathy with Aaron's motives (at least, what I suspect his motives to be). It is outrageous and shameful that research results that are paid for by tax dollars should be sequestered and held hostage for economic gain of a few. Opportunities are missed, lives are lost, innovation slowed. The open access movement is moving us rather too slowly towards redress of this inequity, but at least there is movement.
This is not to resort to the tired rubric 'information wants to be free'. (Do Mercedes automobiles similarly pine for 'free-dom'? If so, may I have mine, please?) The management and dissemination of information assets have costs above their initial production, and if we are to protect these assets and assure their longevity, such costs must be paid. JSTOR is, in fact, a mechanism for just this purpose.
It is hard to be sympathetic to Aaron's methods (again, seen through the murk of online journalism). It would seem his impetuous and impatient zeal as reformer and geek extraordinaire has outpaced his judgment and led him into conflict with, shall we say, somewhat less progressive entities. Without judging the specifics of the case, of which I have only the smallest inkling, I can say that Aaron Swartz is a brilliant intellect who has the potential for innovation and disruption that is the essence of what our country (and the world) needs to thrive. I earnestly hope that his difficulties can be resolved in such a manner as to bring both his extravagant genius and sense of justice to bear more productively on the problems we face. I wish him luck, and hope that this mess can at very least shine a brighter light on the importance of the broad and rapid dissemination of the fruits of human intellect.
A ship's telegraph, at the Michinoku Wooden Boat Museum, in Aomori, Japan. December, 2010. I am given to understand that the museum escaped serious damage from the Tohoku quake and tsunami, and is offering summer programs. Godspeed!