Death of Internet pioneer sparks debate

After downloading millions of files from MIT’s database of scholarly articles, Aaron Swartz was arrested and subsequently committed suicide.

By Anastasia Macdonald

In January, Aaron Swartz, one of the creators of Reddit, RSS, and Creative Commons, brought into light questions regarding media freedom on the internet. Saying he was fighting for freedom of information, Swartz had illegally downloaded academic journals from MIT, a crime which carries a minimum sentence of 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine. He had planned to release them online for free. Two years after his initial arrest for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, he committed suicide on January 11, 2013. Swartz’s case and suicide has inspired wave of controversy on news outlets such as The Chronicle of Higher Education about the freedom of knowledge and information online. Now, the debate has reached USD, as teachers and students ponder whether Swartz was right in his quest for open-access to scholarly publications.

USD students have free access to EBSCO, the school’s online databases, containing over four thousand peer-reviewed journals. These journals are not available for free for non-USD students, and it is controversial whether educational information should be kept from anyone with Internet access.

Swartz, in his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” stated, “Information is power– students, scientists, are given a privilege, while the rest of the world is locked out.”
Some, including media student Jasmine Martirosyan, side with Swartz, agreeing that knowledge should be free and accessible to all.

“Swartz was a scapegoat, and people were trying to make an example out of him,” Martirosyan said. “Producers, authors, and companies should be paid, but it is important to have access to information, and knowledge should be free. Educated people are a great benefit to society; any country will only move forward with education.”

Many University professors publish material, hoping it will be used on databases like EBSCO, and the process requires extensive research and editing. The companies that publish journals have an extensive profit margin, and university libraries spend on average 72 percent of funds to purchase these academic journals. The job of publishers is to select the best, most reliable information,
Biophysics student David Smith agrees that there is a price to pay for those services.

“Wikipedia is a great source, but they don’t check all of their information,” Smith said. “It is nothing in comparison with academic journals, which contain verified correct information. There are expenses associated with journals, and money is needed to sustain certified information. Money has to be charged to pay for their employees.”

USD communications professor Gregory Ghio agreed with this assessment.

“Intellectual property should be protected,” Ghio said.

Aaron Swartz said his goal was to help educate people, to help society, but it is questionable whether his actions were a reasonable way of achieving this goal, especially considering that the audience for academic journals is usually university students, professors, or researchers, not necessarily the average person.

Nevertheless, finance major Lauren Moore said that the punishment awaiting Swartz in court was unjust.

“The punishment for Swartz [was] too harsh because I doubt many people looked at these journals,” Moore said. “He did not deserve that sentence. It’s clearly a business being mad that their profits were possibly taken away. Its not morally wrong that the information was published, but it does hurts the profit of the company,” Moore said, stating that economic aspects have to be taking into consideration.

It is difficult to say whether educational information would benefit society more if it was free, or if it remains as is, especially with the amount of controversy around the issue.