Monday, August 01, 2011

Computer Genius Arrested for Unauthorized Downloads of Scholarly Articles

Michael F. McElroy, Zuma Press, Newscom
Is "information" and "knowledge" on the internet ever free? Should it be, and what are the real costs to users, to people creating the information and knowledge, and to the systems that distribute it? Mores specifically, should access to specialized, valuable information and knowledge, of the kind you'd find in a scholarly journal hosted on a system like JSTOR, be free to everyone and not just subscribing institutions? If it's free, how are these journals and the people behind them stay afloat and receive adequate compensation for their efforts creating this knowledge and information? Beside all of this, if someone accesses this essentially privatized, walled-off information without permission, ostensibly for research, non-profitable purposes, should there be any penalties and if so, what should they be? If they access it to distribute it without permission and freely to others, should there be penalties and how harsh should they be?

There are only a few of the many questions raised by the case of Aaron Swartz, a young computer genius and former fellow at Harvard University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, who, according to David Glenn's article in yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Education, is being investigated for having downloaded "4.8 million scholarly papers and other files from JSTOR." What complicates this issue, which might initially appear to be ethically complex depending upon your stance on "free internet/information" and "open culture" systems, is that Swartz allegedly downloaded the files via MIT's computer system, despite having no formal or informal affiliation with that institution. Swartz, who had access to JSTOR through his Harvard post, and who was arrested on January 6 of this year and could face 35 years imprisonment if convicted, allegedly entered MIT's Building 16 last fall and directly tapped into MIT's network via a wiring closet to access the articles. So heavy were his downloads, under the name "Gary Host" (i.e., GHost), that he tripped JSTOR's download monitor, eventually leading to a number of MIT IP addresses being blocked, and then, on October 9, to JSTOR's servers crashing because of the downloads' speed and volume. JSTOR subsequently cut off MIT's entire network for an unknown amount of time, before restoring it. Neither MIT nor JSTOR is giving specifics about this aspect of the case.

Further complicating the issue is that Lawrence Lessig, a leading legal scholar, critic of restrictive intellectual property laws, advocate of "open culture," directs the Safra Center, and in 2002 had employed Swartz, then 15, to help in the programming of Lessig's Creative Commons project (used by this blog and millions of others) to simplify copyrights for online work. Glenn notes that just this April Lessig, in a speech in Switzerland, decried publishers' paywalls, and has regularly lodged critiques of the legal delimitation of intellectual property, which is to say information and knowledge. Lessig even cited JSTOR in his April talk, pointing to a tweet "from a scholar who called JSTOR 'morally offensive' for charging $20 for a six-page 1932 article from the California Historical Society Quarterly."  He is not, however, commenting on Swartz's case but other figures like Boston-based computer scientist and MIT alum Richard Stallman, one of the major proponents of Open Source systems, have rallied to Swartz's defense.

It's still unclear what Swartz, who has since quit his Harvard post, planned to do with the huge cache of files. Was he planning to use them, as some of his peers suggest, for a research database that would have benefitted from that volume of documents, and if so, would it have been reasonable or just unfeasible for him to request financial research support from Harvard and outside sources, and permission from JSTOR? Was he planning to upload the files to unauthorized online repositories--"free" libraries, as it were--of scholarly materials, or analogous filesharing systems? Or might he have been planning both the public database project, which he has undertaken in the past, and free sharing of the files? Then there is the matter with MIT, with which, as I said, Swartz has no affiliation.  Though quite open with some of its resources--such as its Open Course modules, which make available syllabi, taped class sessions, podcasts, and other material free of charge to anyone who visits its website--MIT is a élite private university which like most private institutions does not allow unauthorized access to its research and other facilities or physical plant, so is it not reasonable for it to have taken steps to investigate and then have the authorities arrest someone who had broken into not just its computer system, but its physical plant? What's baffling is that at some point the Secret Service was called into the picture. I also wonder, as some of the people cited in the article do, whether MIT officials, many of whom have exceptional computer skills, might not have investigated and addressed the situation themselves, before calling in the authorities. Or did they?  And if they did, given the nature and scope of the crime, were their actions excessive, if they were involved in contacting the Secret Service?

A month or so ago I posted a review of Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf, 2010), which is quite critical of the "free information"/"open culture" approach, which the book suggests negatively affects many people's ability to earn a living, among other things.  If nobody is willing to pay will anyone but a very few get paid?  Lanier, if I read him correctly, isn't an advocate of commercialization or mass paywalls, but contra Lessig he does worry about the effects of not having even a modest or moderate system and structure of monetization online, which would ensure compensation for intellectual work. Last December, I posted about Harvard University Librarian and historian Robert Darnton's critique of the exorbitant costs imposed by the current journal publishing system and its damaging financial effects on libraries. If a ultrarich institution like Harvard has to struggle with paying for access, and if scholars themselves are questioning the unaffordable and unsustainable system of access to knowledge in certain formats, what about others at institutions that cannot afford to pay or those without university or other private institutioanl affiliation?

As for Swartz, the young wunderkind has stated in a 2008 manifesto entitled "Guerilla Open Access," "We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world....We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks." This seems to be a hacktivist cri de coeur, a utopian perspective and approach I fully grasp and understand. It is part of the continuum that includes both Limewire and Wikileaks.  But it's a approach that puts him and many who have undertaken similar actions squarely in the crosshairs of the US and other federal governments, as well as private corporations, including publishers, and institutions that zealously seek to protect certain types of information, especially if classified or under copyrights. We know the penalties meted out against groups and individuals involved in unauthorized sharing of documents and downloading commercial music and films, but as MIT professor Chris Capozzola--who is also acting associate dean of the institute's School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences--asks, was MIT response too much, and did it the Institute's "culture of breaking down barries"?  In the end between unauthorized filesharing with the threat of severe prosecution and rigid, unaffordable paywalls, aren't there other ways to proceed?

Lanier's arguments, like Darnton's articles and book on libraries, suggest there are, and perhaps the discussions around this particular case will lead to larger and more broadly engaged public discussions and debates that lead eventually to the development and implementation of alternate systems permitting both affordable monetization and the widest possible public access to the vital forms of knowledge contained in those articles Swartz downloaded. Meanwhile, Swartz's case continues.

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