Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Civil Disobedience (davidbyrne.com)
167 points by amouat on Feb 7, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 115 comments

This article makes little sense to me. Really, civil rights activists shouldn't have fought going to jail over having sat at the front of the bus? Letting the government run them over was the right thing to do? No, the answer is to fight in any venue you can, and the court is a perfectly reasonable one to do it in; that's a major way that laws and their interpretations get changed. In fact, an activist defending herself in court is exactly how buses eventually got desegregated.[1]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browder_v._Gayle

Questions of strategy aside, Byrne is a little too quick to buy the government's story that a crime was actually committed, and much too loose with the words "theft" and "hacking", and of course the stuff about "our security" is nonsense. Swartz could not, should not have expected to go to jail for what he did. That the civil rights protesters expected and received jail time for straightforward violations of law may make them more powerful heros in Byrne's eyes, and that's fair enough (leaving the importance of their respective causes aside -- I'm not the one making this comparison). No one is claiming Swartz is today's Rosa Parks. But it doesn't make Swartz's actions less just and his persecution less unjust.

No I think his point was that Swartz was trying to "get away with it" in his actions during the MIT incident (hiding his face from the cameras, etc), and wasn't prepared to be caught. Clearly, he wasn't willing to plead guilty or do any jail time.

In most of the other examples (Pentagon Papers, Bus desegregation), the people were prepared to be caught and wanted to highlight the immorality of the law. They weren't sneaking onto the bus.

Get away with what? Isn't MIT network open and isn't JSTOR allowing everyone from that network to download articles? I'm really not informed about this, so please inform me. On the other side it looks like witch hunt from the start.

So I'm paraphrasing David Byrne's argument here.

But when Rosa Parks sat down on the bus that day, she was sitting in the black section. When the white section filled up, she was asked to move back some more and she refused. The police were called. They came and arrested her. She understood during this whole time that she would face prosecution and punishment, but she was doing what she believed was right. She fought the punishment in a very public way, and she became a symbol of the overall struggle through that.

Mr Swartz on the other hand was trying to be anonymous about his actions while he was doing them. Even though he was affiliated with Harvard and Harvard had access to JSTOR, but traveled to MIT specifically to use their network for this. He started taking the documents by WiFi, and when that was blocked, he found a closet in the basement to plug his laptop and external hard drive into. His program was designed to download the document slowly, to avoid being so obvious to be caught. He snuck in and out of MIT each day to swap hard drives, sometimes hiding his face from cameras. Much of what he did during this time was trying to avoid being caught. When caught, he gave back the data immediately and agreed never to release it. He was quiet about his legal struggle over the 2 years, not really pounding the drum to try to get attention to the injustice. Didn't blog about the case specifics, didn't do media interviews. Apparently he was trying to keep quiet about it not to upset the prosecutor. He was trying to convince prosecutors to drop the case entirely.

It's a subtle point perhaps, but Byrne is saying Swartz was not prepared for the consequences of his actions whereas other people fighting injustice usually are. After his arrest, he was not fighting publicly to rally support for what he did, but rather just trying everything he could to avoid prosecution.

I wonder if Swartz would have said he regretted the whole JSTOR incident before he died. Certainly Rosa Parks would not have regretted refusing to move seats, even if she landed in jail from it.

So, Byrne used two examples; one about Rosa Parks, and one about Daniel Ellsberg. But he misses a few key points about both of them.

One is that Daniel Ellsberg did do his work surreptitiously. He didn't just openly take the documents, and accept being arrested while doing so. He took them secretly, then tried several different ways of publicizing them while insulating himself legally, including seeing if he could get a senator to enter them into the minutes, since you can't be prosecuted for official business on the senate floor. And when they were eventually released, he went into hiding for a while, before eventually deciding to turn himself in. And he did not, in the end, have to serve any time, as his case was thrown out due to many illegal actions taken by the government, including burgling Ellsberg's psychiatrists office, trying to bribe the judge, and illegally wiretapping Ellsberg.

However, nowadays the case is quite different. In the "post-9/11 world", there are many easier ways for the government to surreptitiously gather evidence. In fact, the government today has shown a willingness to pass laws granting retroactive immunity for illegal wiretapping. It's got to be a lot easier to feel despondent about your chances in a court case in todays world, especially with a prosecutor who has built his career on harsh prosecution of electronic crime.

And Rosa Parks is a completely different story than Ellsberg or Swartz. She was facing a $10 fine and $4 in court costs, not years in jail, hundreds of thousands to millions in fines, fees, and court costs, a felony conviction. While what she did is definitely laudable, it's a lot easier to accept the possibility of losing your case when the stakes are that much lower.

And Bradley Manning? He did something not too dissimilar to Ellsberg. But while Ellsberg got off free of charges, Brad Manning has been imprisoned for years without trial, including months of solitary confinement, and even a period of suicide watch in which he was not allowed clothes or a pillow at night.

I think you put the argument better than Byrne did, but I have several problems with it.

First, in terms of sneaking around, remember that Swartz's goal wasn't to ensure that his children and grandchildren could enter MIT server closets and jump on the network whenever they want. It was to download and publish the contents of JSTOR, and to complete that he had to make sure his activities weren't cut short by discovery. He was basically still trying to board the bus. And to the extent that he used inappropriate means to reach his goal, we should condem him for it, but using questionable methods doesn't make it not civil disobedience. So the whole sneaking thing seems like a red herring.

Second, a huge part of this is that Swartz's could not have expected to face the railroading he did. The requirement that you accept the consequences of your civil disobedience isn't completely open-ended, so this matters a great deal. I can't pretend to know if he would have been willing to face some more proportional fallout for his actions, but it's unfair for us to assume he wouldn't just because the trumped-up charges proved to be too much. Take this, for example:

> Certainly Rosa Parks would not have regretted refusing to move seats, even if she landed in jail from it.

But what if they charged her with sedition and threatened to execute her? Of course I don't know what she'd have done, but the question is whether we'd think less of her if she backed down. "Well, that's civil disobedience for ya. Gotta accept the consequences." If that seems like an extreme analogy, let's look at it the other way: while Swartz's and Parks' actions were, in absolute terms, more or less on-par, Parks' was obviously way more--for lack of a better word--outrageous relative to the established power structure. She was facing down a much larger, more deeply seated, more sinister set of rules and was pursuing a much loftier cause; she was a black woman doing as she pleased in Alabama in 1955. And still Swartz faced much nastier consequences. So it's hardly fair to bash Swartz's unwilling to own up to the "consequences" of his actions; they can't be what he bargained for.

Another way of approaching this is to note that we've been comparing Aaron Swartz to Rosa Parks and Mahatma Ghandi, freaking giants in the history of civil disobedience. Is that really the standard we mean to set? You can't push the ball forward unless you're willing to spend significant portions of your life in jail? Gotta look unblinkingly into the eyes of false justice or accept things the way they are?

Good points. Byrne's argument is interesting but not completely solid. Plenty of people doing civil disobedience don't want to be caught.

But if Swartz really believed in his cause, why did he give up on it so easily? Why not release the data or go on TV anywhere and everywhere to talk about the outrageous system that locks up research documents behind a paywall?

Yeah, that's a big question for me too. To speculate a little bit, the recent Slate profile of Swartz paints him as impatient and mercurial, getting tired of projects quickly and moving on, especially when he finds some aspect of it painful or tedious. Nothing wrong with that in life, I think, but not a great property in an activist. Maybe he just wasn't up for the fight? Edit: and I'll give credit to Byrne on this point.

On the other hand, we should also remember that Swartz is human and not some activist archetype. Sometimes life, shifting priorities, or personal issues get in the way of our goals. Best laid plans, etc. That his followthrough didn't match his initial stab doesn't make the initial stab wrong.

Isn't MIT network open

"MIT running an open network" is not the same as "MIT allows anyone to do anything on their network." MIT runs an open network because it trusts users to use it responsibility. If someone does something that MIT admins don't like, they will try to shut down that activity.

Damn right. I've always rejected the notion that civil disobedience precludes defending yourself in court, especially when the authorities come at you with felony charges. It's a little too convenient for the authorities, in my opinion.

Oh Mr. Byrne, you come from a different world. Having "doubts" that the authors of academic articles see "much of" a share of the money publishers or databases bring in suggests that there is some hope that we would see any of it. The reality is that almost nobody is paid for their articles, and almost nobody even expects to be. Often, the reviewers of articles -- the people who make journals worth reading at all -- are unpaid for that work. Even editors are often volunteers.

I guess we cannot be surprised that a musician would have such a view of copyright. Of course, the article seems to go off the deep end at some points:

"Imagine, as MIT seems to have briefly done, that it was the Chinese or North Koreans or some other entity stealing this data"

Yes, imagine the horror if the Chinese or North Koreans were reading published scientific research. I am sure that the authors of these articles are terrified by the idea that people in China might learn from their work, thus explaining why they published in journals with a global reach.

Just to be clear, not only do authors not get paid for journal articles, but it is not unusual that they have to pay to submit their articles (so-called "page charges"). Given that sometimes these researchers belong to organizations funded by the taxpayer, what you have is a situation where you, the taxpayer, are paying companies like Elsevier to profit from blocking access to publicly funded research.

No, you're paying Elsevier to digitize, index, catalogue, and host publicly funded research. None of that is free.

People are free to pony up the money to create an alternate system, and researchers are free to use it. Nothing is stopping them from doing so. People continue to pay Elsevier, JSTOR, etc, because they value the convenience of using a system that's already established and widely used.

"you're paying Elsevier to digitize, index, catalogue, and host publicly funded research"

Really, is that what we are paying them for? Well that's interesting, because the next paper I submit, which I am preparing now, is written in LaTeX and is submitted electronically. In the LaTeX source, I have to write keywords and codes that classify the article. The article is hosted on my website, which is hosted on the university's computer.

So remind me, what is the publisher being paid for?

> So remind me, what is the publisher being paid for?

Nothing is stopping you from, you know, just not submitting your paper to Elsevier. You could just put up a link on your blog or something. Whatever thing it is that makes you submit to them instead of just doing that is what Elsevier is being paid for.

In other words, they are paid because of the names of the journals they publish. Researchers rarely read bound copies of journals in this day and age; it is faster to download the articles they want to read. My work is published on my web page. I receive emails all the time about it, from people trying to make use of it. At the last meeting for the grant I paid on, my advisor and I were thanked by another research group for some of our work, and for helping that group get our code to run. All of that, however, amounts to nothing if the work is not published in a prestigious journal (or in my field, presented at a prestigious conference, but the conferences are run by the same companies that publish journals and the proceedings are published in the same fashion as journals).

Yes, that is how this works. A researcher with a good reputation in their field, whose website provides quick and easy access to their work, has not advanced their career at all unless their work is published in some set of venues. This is not like interviewing for a tech company and giving them a link to your github account or showing them examples of your code; your CV has to contain a list of publications in major journals/conferences if you want to get anywhere in academia. It all boils down to the names of the journals.

So the next time you want to remind someone that Elsevier is paid for something, you can tell them the truth: Elsevier is paid for the names of its journals.

Okay, so you're paying Elsevier for lending you the weight of their brands, because it's beneficial to you to do so. What's wrong with that? I paid a lot of money to my undergrad and law school so I could put their brands on my resume. Nobody forced me to do it--I did it because it was beneficial to me. I don't see the problem with it.

Everyone pays for brands--it's why Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren, etc, still exist in an industry where marginal costs are approaching nothing. Hell, even tech companies pay for brands. They don't recruit at Berkeley and Stanford just to get a look at peoples' github repositories.

Signaling, filtering, vetting, vouching are intrinsic to human society. There is nothing coercive about what Elsevier is doing. They've built up brands people trust and are making money providing the signaling services people want.

> They've built up brands people trust

TL;DR: No they didn't. Academics did, and publishers will wither away because they add no value and have relatively little power over the academics upon which they are parasites. I then break the law.

Certainly in computer science, it is not the publishers who have not built up brands people trust (except ACM and possibly IEEE). Academics forming program committees and organising the conferences have built up the trusted brands.

Now, in the past, it made sense to get a publisher to produce paper proceedings for attendees and distribute proceedings to libraries.

However, now publishers make very little contribution to conferences – attendees all pay a significant fee to attend. The programme committee and referees are not paid. The authors produce digital works (and the referees do minor proof reading, not the publisher). Paper copies are often not distributed. I've not been on a programme committee, but I'm pretty sure publishers are adding no value whatsoever.

The reason this hasn't withered away already is that all universities pay for access to all publishers so academics don't really see it as a problem; it's easier to just stick to the status quo when it's not your rights being violated.

But eventually, conference organisers will realise they can just tell Elsvier or Springer or even the IEEE and ACM to get stuffed†. They'll then put the proceedings on arxiv or some other free place (hell, just torrent them) and merrily continue doing everything else exactly the same sans publisher.

Civil disobedience time: http://robinmessage.com/wwv07.pdf is a conference paper I wrote. In order to participate in that conference, I was coerced into giving my copyright to Elsvier. Note they did nothing to make it happen; it was my work, and the work of the organising committee and referees. But I no longer own the copyright to that paper, and so probably broke the law posting it here.

† Interestingly, apparently all publicly funded UK research will soon be required to be published somewhere open access, in direct violation of the requirements of most publishers. So academics have a fun question to answer: don't publish anywhere good, or break the law?

You're dancing around the point. Nobody is forcing you to publish with Elsevier, nobody is forcing universities to subscribe, nobody is forcing you to go to conferences associated with them, etc. It all operates on the academic industry voluntarily doing business with Elsevier. Presumably, if they wanted to do business with someone else they would do so.

So what's the civil disobedience against? Where is the beef here, because I don't see it.

I'm not sure exactly what your disagreement is here, so sorry if what follows just muddies the waters further.

Background: an academic must publish. It is their purpose. And they have relatively little control over the venue they publish in - whatever happened some time ago controls where they can have impact and gain kudos (and reach).

I think the practices of publishers are immoral. A large system, including laws, the state, and various independent and dependent entities makes what they do legal, and disobeying their rules illegal. I was not forced to publish with Elsevier, but as mentioned above, neither did I have any realistic other options. Vested interests are real, however much we would like to wish them away.

To use an analogy: if bus companies were privately owned, and practiced segregation (and sitting in the wrong place could be construed as criminal), would it be civil disobedience to sit in the wrong place? After all, nobody is forcing you to ride a particular bus. You could get together with other like-minded people and form a new bus company. However, that is a serious undertaking; we could just make segregation illegal instead.

In the same way, we could form lots of new journals and conferences which would struggle to prominence; or we could make copyright assignment of academic work illegal, at least for publicly funded research. Don't forget that copyright is at the gift of the state; it is not a natural right but a constructed one; and without the state enforcing it would be significantly weaker.

Summary: Some acts are so immoral that the state makes them illegal, even between consenting entities. In my opinion, what one might call copyright theft, as practised by publishers upon academics, is one of those acts; yet currently the law says I am the one in the wrong. Hence, civil disobedience: active and professed refusal to follow a particular law because, like a bus, I have very little choice about which one to get on (to publish in), but I'll sit (put my paper) where I like once I'm on it.

Force and coercion can come from places outside of law or government decision. They can come from private actors, or, as in this particular case, from historically grown social structures.

As an academic, you are de facto forced to publish in certain journals that are considered to be important and of high quality. It is the collective status quo that does the forcing, as Robin_Message has already explained quite well.

(Coincidentally, most of my disagreement with most libertarians seems to come from the fact that they fail to understand or accept this relatively simple concept. If you implicitly assume that force and coercion can only ever come from the state, you're going to have a somewhat warped outlook on life.)

"Nobody is forcing you to publish with Elsevier"

It's called "publish or perish," in other words your career as a researcher depends on you publishing papers in certain journals. Again, the fact that I have started to gain a reputation within my field makes no difference to my career as a researcher; only the papers I publish matter, and only if I publish those papers in certain venues.

"Presumably, if they wanted to do business with someone else they would do so."

So you are trying to apply a market-based solution to this situation, despite the fact that academic publishers remain in business because of a special government-granted monopoly? That's some interesting logic you have there.

"So what's the civil disobedience against? Where is the beef here, because I don't see it."

The civil disobedience is against a system that prevents the general public from accessing published research despite the widespread availability of a technology that can cheaply copy and transmit published research. I do not know if you noticed, but there is a global computer network available that is better at copying and distributing scientific articles than any publishing company has ever been, yet the majority of that system's users would have to pay more than their month's salary just to read the articles I cited in my last paper (or else more than a year's salary for subscription access). This situation exists solely because of copyright; there is no economic reason for it and it benefits nobody (other than academic publishing companies' investors).

Since you need it spelled out for you, here it is: the "beef" is with the fact that poor people are less able to access scientific publications than rich people. Traveling to the nearest university is expensive and time consuming, and even if you can do that there is no guarantee that the library will actually have a subscription to all journals (they almost certainly do not, and they may not care if someone who lacks affiliation requests a particular article or journal). We can correct that inequity, which works for the benefit of our supposedly democratic system and our supposedly capitalist economic system, by utilizing the most advanced and effective global communication system ever developed, and so the "beef" is really with our utter failure to do so for the sake of protecting businesses that were built around the communication technology of six centuries ago.

"you're paying Elsevier for lending you the weight of their brands, because it's beneficial to you to do so. What's wrong with that?"

1. Academic publishers do nothing to contribute to the strength of these "brands;" the reviewers and editors voluntarily do so. Nobody says, "Springer publishes that journal, so it must be a good one!"

2. Publish-or-perish is extreme destructive to research. Researchers frequently avoid difficult problems because such problems make it hard to publish at the expected rate. The existence of the academic publishing system, combined with the focus on journal names rather than research quality, creates and encourages the publish-or-perish system. The overall effect is detrimental to everyone, including researchers who are forced to shy away from the problems they set out to address in order to meet the demand to publish papers.

"Hell, even tech companies pay for brands. They don't recruit at Berkeley and Stanford just to get a look at peoples' github repositories."

Unlike academic publishers, Berkeley and Stanford actively maintain a level of quality that companies who recruit there expect. At the very least, those schools pay the faculty who make their curricula valuable to students; there is an expectation that by completing the requirements for a degree at such schools, students have proved their merit.

Academic publishers do nothing to maintain the quality of scientific journals; they contribute only their name, and are able to do so only because their businesses receive special, privileged protection by the government (copyrights and trademarks). The "value" of these "brands" is artificial, created by a system of laws that is grossly outdated and which no longer serves its purpose (at least as far as scientific research is concerned). We once needed academic publishers to facilitate the communication of scientific results; times have changed, we now have a better way for scientists to communicate, and all that remains is to incentivize its use (much like we incentivized the academic publishing business with copyright law).

"Signaling, filtering, vetting, vouching are intrinsic to human society"

I fail to see how this is relevant to a discussion about academic publishers, as academic publishers do not do any of the above. Again, review is generally done by volunteers, and editing is frequently voluntary.

"There is nothing coercive about what Elsevier is doing"

Academic publishers coerce researchers into assigning copyrights, and then use those assignments to extract money from those researchers later if they try to reproduce their articles elsewhere. It is coercive because researchers are expected to publish papers in the journals that academic publishers control, and so the researchers must choose between their careers and the demand for a copyright assignment. Not all coercion involves threats of death or imprisonment; threatening a person's livelihood is coercive.

> No, you're paying Elsevier to digitize, index, catalogue, and host publicly funded research. None of that is free.

So why aren't those services let out for competitive bid?

The agreements that were made in the past have severe negative externalities in the present environment. They must be renegotiated. We should not live in a feudal society where mere tradition grants a divine right of monopoly to publicly funded goods.

As far as I can tell, it's not tradition that gives Elsevier its monopoly, it's simple network effect. It's the same reason you use Facebook or Google Chat instead of something else--by publishing on an Elsevier-affiliated journal, your academic work reaches the most eyeballs.

"by publishing on an Elsevier-affiliated journal, your academic work reaches the most eyeballs."

No, by publishing freely on the Internet, without any paywall between readers and your article, your academic work reaches the most eyeballs. Publishing in a journal that is locked behind paywalls is one of the least efficient ways to communicate one's work to others. The only issue is that doing so does not help anyone's career, and failing to publish in major journals is fatal to such careers.

Elsevier definitely provides a service, and should be remunerated for it. However, arguably most of their income is due to a "coordination game" rather than any value added - see The Parable of the Anarchists Annual Meeting[1].


How is this different from the usual network effect?

It's not particularly different (though the low switching costs are somewhat unusual). Regardless, there's a network externality that allows Elsevier to capture excess rents. It's not that Elsevier doesn't provide any value, but at the same time, its profits outpace that value by a large margin. Nonetheless, coordination problems can easily prevent a competitor who pledges not to take those rents from disrupting Elsevier's position, so it's not as easy as saying "there's nothing stopping you from starting a new competitor".

> No, you're paying Elsevier to digitize, index, catalogue, and host publicly funded research. None of that is free.

The Web/Google?

Nothing is stopping Google from setting up such a service, though I would personally rather just pay an upfront fee than sell Google more of my privacy.

His wording is loose (ie freely labelling Swartz' offenses "theft"), but he works his way to a pretty good handle on JSTOR's business model over the ensuing paragraphs. A lot of comments seem to reflexively interpret this as a musician defending outmoded conceptions of intellectual property - that's there, but he also does a thoughtful job of counterbalancing - but the heart of it is placing Swartz, Wikileaks et al in the context of other civil disobedience movements.

I read it somewhat differently. The following paragraphs demonstrate some awareness of the fact that researchers are rarely paid for their writings, or at least that he is willing to believe it when researchers take the time to say so. On the other hand, this is his summary of his view of the problem with academic publishing:

"While I can empathize both with academics who might either want to monetize their research or those who might want to make it freely available to all—the choice, ideally, should be the authors'"

His view of the problem, it seems, centers on the authors of academic articles. He continues that line of reasoning further down:

"Information, like that contained in these papers, is what scholars use to inspire themselves and it often serves a foundation for their own research"

"There is a big difference in my opinion between using someone else’s work as inspiration and as a stepping-stone and using that work—or work that incorporates that work—as a way to make money"

"I can certainly see the point that much academic data, when freely available, can have a greater chance to spur insights and creativity from researchers and scientists around the world than if it is locked up behind paywalls. Withholding cancer research from academics who can’t afford access because a big pharmaceutical company "owns" the data doesn't seem like a very morally defensible position—even if it is what the law might say is perfectly legal."

The basis of his ideas about whether or not Aaron was doing the right thing or engaging in civil disobedience is strongly tied to his notion of what problem Aaron was trying to address. His background in the music industry clearly influences his interpretation of that problem, given the strong, author-centric view of copyright that he expresses. He misses the entire point of Aaron's actions: to make the knowledge conveyed by the articles available to everyone, regardless of what people do with it. Aaron was not trying to draw attention to the plight of researchers or the unfairness of the flow of money; Aaron was trying to ensure that knowledge would not be restricted to an elite class (one that is almost an aristocracy) by using the technology we now have available to us, the Internet.

What Byrne misses, and where his argument goes off course, is that copyrights have never been about funding research. The purpose of copyright in academic research is to fund the distribution of those articles; the research itself is paid for by other means. Before the Internet, expensive industrial equipment was needed to distribute scientific writing on a mass scale, and copyright helped to ensure that the required industry would remain profitable (or at least that it could break even). Journals are a way for scientists to share their findings with others, which is necessary for both the progress of science (which Byrne correctly points out in his article) as well as for science to be beneficial to humanity (which Byrne misses: cancer research is useless if medical doctors, drug manufacturers, and the general public never learn about the results of the research). In today's world, we have a much more efficient way for scientists to communicate their findings, yet the continued application of copyright has prevented that system from being used effectively. Byrne misses that point, likely because his concept of why researchers publish their articles is based on his own experience as a musician and his concept of why musicians record and publish their music.

Byrne gets the information-dissemination idea, though:

'But who then decides what data “deserves” to be stolen and “liberated”? '

He's arguing that the authors (academic researchers) should be the ones practicing disobedience. Lawfully allowing a third agent to later 'liberate' the material from its domain is a slippery slope. By that rational, personal correspondences, IPR, stealth-mode ML algo.s, and sexts are all fair game for liberation.

Information, of itself, is not beholden to be free. Information without context is noise. In academic publishing, the context includes -- I'm guessing -- authors' tenureships (the primary source of income and job security). In music publishing, the context is attribution, since without their oeuvre, a musician is just a busker.

"Lawfully allowing a third agent to later 'liberate' the material from its domain is a slippery slope"

Yet copyright law in the United States has always required an expiration date on copyrights. I say this with confidence because anything else would have violated our constitution:

"To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

So in fact, the law as it exists today already allows a "third agent" to liberate material that was once copyrighted. Of course, unlike the original copyright act that allowed copyrights for 14 years, today's copyright laws do not allow work to enter the public domain for multiple generations: the lifetime of the author, and then decades after that. We are not on a "slippery slope" that will lead to violations of personal privacy; in fact, much like we now have technology that obviates the need for academic publishers, we also have technology to protect our personal correspondence from third parties (public key cryptography), and much like the law hampering our ability to actually use the technology that would spread knowledge better than academic publishers, the law thwarted the efforts to deploy public key cryptosystems.

It is interesting to see the different reactions to this article. Byrne is clearly sympathetic to Aaron’s cause, and to the fact that civil disobedience and other sometimes subversive methods can be effective in dealing with injustice.

There seem to be many comments attacking him for various minor gripes, choice of language, his incomplete understanding of the situation, etc. But that seems to miss the point. He’s ultimately asking how did this end up so wrong, and what can we learn from this tragic situation. How far should someone need to be prepared to go when taking a stand? How might more effective publicity/messaging have furthered the cause or helped prevent the judicial process from spiraling out of hand.

Technical advancement and the proliferation of data create scenarios that are clearly not intuitive to the average person. There seems to be a tendency to sometimes attack/lecture less technically proficient observers, rather than try to more meaningfully communicate and get to the heart of the issue.

Byrne connects the JSTOR situation to the very different realms of wikileaks, manning, music publishing, etc. For those who care about the rules governing information sharing, IP, etc, this begs the critical question of “how do we differentiate among these ideas, so they are not all muddled together in the public’s eye.”

He definitely makes many great connections to the larger picture. The problem is that he gets many of the ideological details wrong, which is really unfortunate as it leads to potential misjudgments of Swaartz's cause.


1. Swaartz did have legal access to all of these files. There was no "theft" involved (Byrne's statement, "Swartz stole the material, pure and simple", is a hefty misunderstanding). He was, however, exploiting a loophole. He also violated the website's terms of service and trespassed at MIT.

2. Byrne seems to be implying that Swaartz should have admitted he was wrong and accepted jail time or being a martyr. But at no time was Swaartz ever offerred a punishment within three orders of magnitude of any that fit the crime. Should Rosa Parks have plead guilty to carjacking?

3. Byrne seems to think that all of the articles in repositories like JSTOR are "proprietary". In fact, a huge number are not. They have expired copyrights and are public domain; this was a large part of Swaartz's cause. To JSTOR's great credit, they have been expanding access to these articles since Swaartz's arrest, so in that respect his civil disobedience got the message across.

4. Byrne treats academic research somewhat as a monetizable commodity, like music. But not only do academics not see a penny on publications, but more importantly, members of subscribing institutions already have free and unlimited access to read any of these articles. It is just individuals not connected to big universities who have to pay large amounts (and this hurts the authors, who want people to read their work). The justification for charging for access to papers is not to monetize them, but that it costs upkeep to host and organize them. But of course, a P2P distribution of torrents would go a long way toward solving this problem for free, making both the authors and readers happier (but not the middleman).

Civil Disobedience means accepting that what you are doing is illegal and dealing with the consequences. Period.

"Fighting the system" is a different can of worms. Being a revolutionary is also different. But Civil Disobedience means that you put civility -- the willingness to not fight -- at the same level as your moral outrage. Civil Disobedience is doing the right thing, being willing to take the consequences without a fight, and daring the public to put up with such an immoral system. The person who is being disobedient is asking "How can our society continue in a practical way when we treat people this way?" It's both a moral and a practical question. It's not just outrage.

It's an important distinction. I'm fine with revolutionaries, after all, the U.S. started with a revolution. But we were very clear in the Declaration of Independence the reasons for our taking up arms. We had a job to do, and the king had a job to do. The king wasn't doing his, and after trying our best to meet his demands, power then reverted to the natural legislature of the people.

This wasn't a moral crusade. This was a reluctant servant taking the only action possible.

If you want a moral crusade and a revolution, then you have to answer one key question: what makes you so right? After all, if we're talking morals, other people have morals too, and I betcha they're not going to agree with yours. What do we do? All get clubs and run out into the street and whoever wins gets to decide what's right? Been a lot of that going around, and it never ends well. Majorities don't decide the correct construction of a society that's going to last. All they get to do is bully folks into getting their way.

I can't make a call on Aaron because I have no idea what his intentions were, and the story never finished. So the reader is free to add whatever he would like onto it (one of the reasons it is so powerful, probably)

But I know from Civil Disobedience. Powerful concept. Poorly understood.

ADD: Was going to link to MLK's letter from a Birmingham Jail, but that might derail us. MLK put this in religious terms, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?", but the core of the question in my mind is not religious, it is this: how are we all going to continue getting along together if things continue like this?

> If you want a moral crusade and a revolution, then you have to answer one key question: what makes you so right?

This is a very good question, the article asked a similar question:

>But who then decides what data “deserves” to be stolen and “liberated”?

How about we have an honest, uncensored, long running if necessary, public debate about these matters, involving academics and yes, even the public. I almost think politicians should be explicitly excluded as they are largely, let's say, "compromised", or at the very least have repeatedly proven incapable of acting like informed responsible adults.

Let's set some ground rules for discussion, such as for starters, no lying or half-truths. When someone lies, it goes on their record so their future statements can be judged based on their past actions. The concept of "character" is traditionally used to serve this purpose, but in the modern age I don't think this low tech approach is cutting it. (If we could do something just to stop the lying and disingenuousness, you'd have half the battle won.)

Lay out the options, list the advantages, disadvantages, and costs. If the various sides "can't agree" on these, fire them and get new ones. Then, let the public decide.

This probably sounds a lot like the role democracy is supposed to serve, but are there really any serious people out there that would claim the present form of democracy, in most any country, even remotely resembles in practice what it is supposed to be in theory.

All of this will require money and technology, so fund it with tax dollars. Yes, it will be difficult, it will require much discussion, compromise, and innovative thinking, but it's far from impossible.

> ... no lying or half-truths.

So who gets to decide what's a half-truth, a lie by omission, or just well-intentioned but insufficiently detailed?

Most things are provably true/false, or not broken down into fine enough detail.

In the minority of situations where it is genuinely indeterminate, you come to a consensus, just as happens between normal people millions of times each day on this planet.

Part of the problem is, politicians routinely pass legislation they know is wrong, knowing they can hide behind the "we didn't know, our intentions were in the right place" argument later because they know they will be let off the hook, even though everyone knows they are lying.

Governance has become such an "emperor has no clothes" scenario, where lying with impunity isn't given a second thought - no one would have believed you if you had predicted this state of affairs 100 years ago.

Processing all these lies on an ongoing basis sounds impossible, but if the media and the public actually started outing politicians and executives for their lying, they would stop doing it so much, making verification of genuine uncertainties much easier.

What stoppes the new debate players to become "compromised" like the old ones when the entire thing becomes serious and the stakes get high?

We could try honesty and integrity. That this seems like a comical suggestion when actually it isn't kind of shows how bad things are.

The distinction between felony and misdemeanor is key, and therein rests Lessig's argument about proportionality. I don't doubt that Aaron would have been willing to do time if it meant making a point. But he didn't want to set a precedent in this circuit court that this kind of activity was a felony violation of the CFAA--it would have made it harder, not easier, for those who came after him.

Also, while I agree with you that civil disobedience means going to jail, most moral crusaders whom society has fit to punish that way have not been charged with felonies (Martin Luther King Jr was never charged as a felon), and past innovators with similarly murky histories (Steve Jobs and blue boxes, for example) suffered no punishment. Aaron's political actions made him a target for the worst the government could do.

"Civil Disobedience means accepting that what you are doing is illegal and dealing with the consequences. Period." Excuse me, the dude took his own life. That's a pretty powerful "fuck you" to the government. Another idiotic meme that needs to die: if a prosecution of an individual is unjust, it doesn't matter whether said individual went in expecting to become a martyr.

> But Civil Disobedience means that you put civility -- the willingness to not fight -- at the same level as your moral outrage.

Although civil disobedience is in contrast to war, AFAIK the term doesn't imply civility any more than "civil war" does.

The word "civil" in most of the common two-word combinations you can think of means something along the lines of "of the citizens." Civil rights are the rights of the citizens; civil war is a war between citizens of the same country; civil disobedience is citizens doing what they feel to be their civic duty by disobeying the civil government.

None of these imply any particularly great level of politeness, much less being a doormat.

> Civil Disobedience means accepting that what you are doing is illegal and dealing with the consequences. Period.

Why? So they can thoroughly stomp you and nobody else get the idea?

So many moral demands for the little guy and not for the huge all-powerful blind mad machine that crushed him.

"Civil Disobedience means accepting that what you are doing is illegal and dealing with the consequences. Period."

I'm afraid you're wrong. You can also attempt to avoid the consequences and still be committing an act of civil disobedience.

But from that perspective, the activist is not distinguishable from the criminal. Responsibility and acceptance of consequences is the source of "honor" in an act of civil disobedience.

This is wrong.

Let's take some really serious examples: the holocaust and slavery. Both were imposed by the law, and both were fought by concientious individuals. People harbored escaped slaves, people helped jews escape the nazi death camps. And they also tried very hard to avoid the consequences of those actions (which in the case of harboring jews could be death). Yes, this does make them criminals, but it does not put their actions on a lesser moral standing or make them less honorable.

The difference between the activist and the criminal lies in the underlying morality of the act and of the law, it does not lie in whether or not someone willingly accepts the legal punishment for breaking the law.

+100 000

No it's not. The conscious decision to refuse to cooperate with an unjust law is the source of honour.

> it seems he illegally hacked his way into an MIT database

Rather, he improperly downloaded a large number of academic papers from JSTOR via MIT's network - papers that were publicly funded and were legally accessible to people on MIT's network, but which Aaron believed should be widely accessible to everyone.

The prosecutor tried to bully Aaron into pleading guilty to an array of felony charges for the supposed crime of violating a TOS contract.

This. A thousand times: this.

I really feel like this really cuts to the core of the problem with "cybercrime". The fact is, most people have absolutely no understanding of the technical details of the "crimes" most hackers carry out. Most distressingly, this seems to include public prosecutors and judges.

I am not sure if this is a result of misapplied analogies, or "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", or something else, or some combination of the above. In any case, our biggest priority should not just be reforming the law to match a more careful and technically nuanced version of computer crime.

Indeed, our greatest goal should be to expand public awareness and appreciation of what hackers are, what they do, and how they go about doing it. I intentionally use the ambiguous term, "hacker" here. Until people understand what is really going on, they will forever remain ignorant of the proper course of justice.

We can add the constant abuse of the terms "steal" and "theft", which make no sense when applied to the act of making a copy of a digital file.

To play devil's advocate here...

Let's say I work a full day with the understanding that I will get paid for my efforts. The employer then refuses to pay me. It would not be uncommon for someone to say that the employer 'stole' from you, or call them a 'thief'.

I could also see how many people would equate that to downloading a copy of something that required effort to produce and was being offered under specific terms.

I could see how arguing about the verbage, to most people, is just an exercise in pedantry and (as far as they are concerned) misses the point.

Since you cannot get your lost time back, it certainly is theft (of services).

However, that is not the case at all with digital copying, where the original owner of the data is not deprived of anything. That is the real point - the idea of property is inextricably related to scarcity, which doesn't exist in the digital realm.

Scarcity does exist in the digital realm - only on the production side. Distribution is effectively free.

Until dev/random spits out complete programs that are worth using, it needs to be taken into account that all software requires effort to produce, and giving the author(s) the ability to dictate the terms of the software use is often the only reason certain software gets made.

Rather, he gained access to a network closet and hid his identity as he attached his laptop to a switch. He then proceeded to violate some TOS that everyone agrees nobody cares about.

So let's say somebody steps into your office, opens your network closet and leaves a laptop there overnight. You don't know who it is and you see it sucking down some data from some service you incidentally pay for.

Can you honestly tell me that when you discover the laptop doesn't belong to anybody in your office, you'll just step out the closet and let it continue doing it's thing while you wait for the owner to return?

It's clear nobody cares about JSTOR, what Byrne is bringing up vis-a-vis historical precedents of civil disobedience and closes with is that when you find the laptop, your real worry isn't about JSTOR's feelings, it's the subterfuge.

Why it's 'complicated' and 'sloppy' is because you now have to divorce your feelings about your network's violation from your ambivalence to casual TOS violation, which is hard.

If the closet was off-limits, then the charge should have been a simple trespassing, given that doing the same thing from a publicly accessible ethernet socket would have been completely legal.

He was only using the closet, because MIT was trying to singlehandedly change the terms of access to to the database to prevent the hoovering up of the info.

It's like getting arrested at a lunch buffet for eating too fast, or too much.

my point being that 'simple trespassing' + tos violation is a muddy issue whereas simply violating a tos is an easy-to-parse flavor of civil disobedience.

more to the point, it's like getting arrested by a usda strike force at a buffet for eating in the kitchen after being told by the manager to that you're moving through the line too quickly. I agree that this is a disproportionate punishment, but... why are you in the kitchen again?

I would prefer that we only argue about TOS violations and the ethics of open-access journals, but instead we have to preface everything with "but look, he was only criminally trespassing because MIT changed their network access policy for community members" and that caveat by its very nature weakens the discourse around open-access journals, silly terms of service and so on.

You're right that the behavior on some level is 'technically correct' but it doesn't change Byrne's point that civil disobedience is most effective when the execution (and 'crime' committed) is unambiguous and focused.

People are way too hasty to label Aaron Swartz action as hacking, thieving or any word with illegal connotations. It is well known that Aaron by way of his associations with MIT had the right to download JSTOR articles there. All he did was to create a simple program that exploited his access with a program that went through the motions of downloading automatically instead of having to manually click on each articles. This is not hacking. It is a very common type of script used by software developers all the time. He already had legal access. He only accelerated the downloading of articles.

People have been attributing the fact that Aaron tried to hide his actions on the MIT campus as a sign that he knew what he was doing was illegal. I believe it is actually a sign of the opposite. All parties thought that the downloading he was doing was probably legal (or at least a gray area). However, it broke some Terms of Service agreement (you know the long documents you have to press 'accept' to when you want to install software). Everyone involved knew that, since they didn't have a good legal defense, the only thing the university could do to stop him using their network in a way that they didn't like was to physically stop him and kick him off campus as a trespasser. Therefore he had to hide from them to avoid this. It wasn't right for him to trespass and ignore Terms and Conditions but it certainly shouldn't have been a felony.

Why do I believe that Aaron thought what he was doing was legal? Aaron was not a naive person when it came to laws. Exhibit A: The amount of books Aaron read and reviewed, often more than 100 per year! If you look at the list there are lots of them on politics, economy,philosophy and law ( http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/books2010 ).

Take a glance at Aaron's last blog post which is a review of a Batman movie. It is all about the strategic uses of game theory to affect the balance of powers in the legal and political system (http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/tdk). He seemed to have a very keen eye that saw all the weird ways laws and powers can flow in political systems.

It seems that Aaron was not trying to hack computer code but instead hack legal code. That is find legal means (or at least gray areas) that he could then exploit politically. Once he had the articles, he probably intended to release them publicly and confront the courts where he thought he could set favorable precedents for information freedom (like he had done in the past). He probably wanted to get caught for the act of releasing the articles but that required him not to get caught trespassing for a while.

Aaron's misjudgment was that he would face a legal challenge in broken but still somewhat reasonable copyright laws and maybe some kind of trespassing violation (and the civil disobedience would be on the level of trespassing) when instead he was confronted with completely disproportionate and unreasonable Anti-Hacking laws meant to deter terrorists from penetrating vital systems. These laws were way too broad by stating that anything that violates Terms and Condition (something that most people do) can be considered a felony. That is what is supposed to change with Aaron's law (http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2013/02/aarons-law-amending...)

I think Aaron's misjudgment was a perfectly understandable. My opinion is that even MIT, in favoring prosecution, thought that he would face reasonable laws and would get a slap on the wrist. That is why they didn't tell the DOJ to drop the charges and are now internally investigating what happened.

It is well known that Aaron by way of his associations with MIT had the right to download JSTOR articles there.

He also had "legal" access through his fellowship at Harvard, he could have downloaded his articles while at work.

And I suspect that that is because he wanted to avoid the consequences if he had done so at Harvard - certainly the evidence of hiding identity, appearance, circumventing roadblocks to continue as he did would also point to that.

It seems to be that David Byrne isn't that familiar with Aaron Swartz's fight.

He says:

  Withholding cancer research from academics 
  who can’t afford access because a big pharmaceutical 
  company “owns” the data doesn’t seem like a very morally 
  defensible position—even if it is what the law might say 
  is perfectly legal.
I do not know what he is referring to here at all. (1) JSTOR likely does not have much cancer research in the journals it covers. (2) Publications are owned by publishers, not any "big pharmaceutical company". The "big pharmaceutical company" receives no payment from the purchase of articles, and in some cases has to pay to publish in the journal that then also requires assignment of the copyright and charges for access the content.

is that an important detail?

his main point, it seems to me, is that when compared with other rights protesters, swartz fought going to jail.

i don't know if that's true (and would black rights protesters have defended themselves legally if they had the means?), but it's an interesting point about tactics.

more generally, even though it wasn't the most informed article, i thought it was interesting - a smart person trying to understand a complex situation, not afraid to point out problems, and not afraid to acknowledge the lack of clear answers.

As far as I know, black rights protesters weren't charged with 13 felonies.

Firstly, civil rights protesters were charged with numerous crimes - not just related to the Jim Crow laws, but as part of an active campaign to silence them (Martin Luther King, for example, was charged with tax fraud by Alabama, which he was found innocent of).

Secondly, I don't see the relevance of the number of felonies being charged at any one time. Many in the civil rights movement were repeatedly arrested, charged, and tried over many, many years. And many faced length sentences off only one or two charges.

I'm not totally sure of the point you were trying to make, but if you're trying to equate Aaron Swartz's persecution with that of those in the civil rights movement then you're treading onto extremely shaky ground.

Here's the part of the comment I was replying to:

compared with other rights protesters, swartz fought going to jail.

Those protesters certainly "fought" whatever it was they were put through!

They were, however, lynched, shot, beaten (sometimes to death) and illegally jailed.

I agree. I hesitated on submitting the article as several statements seem a bit uninformed. But it is an interesting article from a notable person.

What makes the article interesting is not the point that it makes, but the perspective that a musician would have on these issues. There seems to be this idea that academic publishing companies are like recording companies, and that researchers have the same relationship with publishers as musicians have with recording studios.

His view of this issue is very much shaped by his profession.

Mr. Byrne adds a different perspective to this story, connecting it with historic fights for liberty. I welcome his openness, perspective and humble attitude. Since he doesn't have an emotional or industrial connection to Aaron Swartz he can enable a wider discussion around the issue of liberating information, copyright and open source.

Byrne seems to have not groked that Swartz had access to JSTOR legally, although from a different institution (Harvard, not MIT) and could have downloaded everything legally if he wanted to. The thinking is he went to MIT to make the act illegal; to make a statement. To be civilly disobedient.

The problem is we now have a DOJ that has been corrupted by the PATRIOT act and its kin; with memos legalizing all kinds of state-sponsored acts that were unthinkable before 9/11. It's a different atmosphere than when the Pentagon Papers were leaked. We are moving swiftly towards a predator state; like China or Brazil. Swartz was probably reacting to that.

Good point. Also that Swartz's primary focus was not just on copyrighted materials (though those too), but also materials whose copyrights had been expired but were still hidden behind paywalls.

To JSTOR's credit, they have been opening up access to such files since the incident, which is awesome.

(On the other hand, most of JSTOR could be replaced by a dozen 2TB hard drives and a cable modem internet connection, so it's hard to understand what they charge so much for...but I digress.)

I don't disagree with Byrne's position on Swartz's actions. But Byrne's implicit comparison of the feds to Inspector Javert -- he might have done better to pay more attention to that facet of the case. Imagine whom the feds might have cut loose to make room for Mr. Swartz -- probably a killer or rapist. Based on incidents like these and others -- such as Tommy Chong's stretch in the poke for selling paraphenalia -- it's not hard to justify the hypothesis that the state jails hackers and paroles murderers to keep the rest of us in a state of perpetual, dependent fear.

> While I can empathize both with academics who might either want to monetize their research or those who might want to make it freely available to all—the choice, ideally, should be the authors’

It's unfortunate to see that the author here wrote in such length about a subject that he is obviously pretty clueless about.

The authors of academic publication do not receive royalties for their publications, peer reviewers are— likewise, unpaid peers—, as are many (though not all) journal editors.

None of the people responsible for creating these works are getting paid. Their only choice in this process is the choice to publish with established and prestigious journals. The journals are what put up the paywalls— but in the US they don't have a lawful copyright interest in the works.

Mr. Byrne's article starts with and promotes as true the prosecutor's claim that Mr. Swartz is a thief who "stole" a database, despite the fact that Mr. Swartz, both as a Harvard fellow, as a visiting family member of an MIT employee, and as a random member of the public visiting the MIT campus, had the legal right to access the JSTOR archive, and MIT was paying JSTOR hefty licensing fees for this access. The only stealing going on was JSTOR stealing the access that MIT legally paid for.

It is infuriating that Mr. Byrne makes his argument based on questionable claims, but even more so that his blog has no comments permitted or contact info rather than to contact any of four sets of high paid lawyers that represent him.

Byrne is absolutely wrong in asserting that civil rights activists were always ready to accept their punishment readily.

The weakest link in any civil rights case is always the defendant. Rosa Parks was not the first African-American women to refuse to give up her seat on a bus.

The NAACP and the civil rights movement elevated that case to the national level precisely because she was the epitome of Middle Class Respectability that was the cornerstone of the NAACP's decades long, methodical legal battle against segregation.

Parks was the right person to challenge that injustice because she was a middle class female mother figure. She was the right person precisely because the plan from the start was to fight her arrest in court.

Neither Parks nor the NAACP ever intended for her to be a martyr rotting in prison.

During the Chicago Seven trial Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin put the system on trial and made a mockery of the proceedings by coming to court wearing black robes. They screamed "in the halls of justice the only justice is in the halls" when Bobby Seale was tied, bound and gagged to a chair for interrupting the court repeatedly and defiantly. They made fun of the judge for having the same last name as Abbie Hoffman, and satirized the entire ordeal.

Our justice system is so out of control that the difference between now and 1968 is in 1968 people were able to challenge prosecutions in court.

The travesty of justice here is effectively, and I would argue unconstitutionally, denying Aaron the right to a trial by his peers by piling on obscene charges with effective life sentences.

David Byrne is being far too quick to accept the bully prosecutor Ortiz's interpretation of events, and sadly "This must be the place" will never sound the same to me again.

You can't just give out network wide free access to documents on public campuses and then claim that they are behind a paywall.

Given a long enough lifespan Aaron could have sat in front of a computer in an MIT library and read millions of academic articles and his brain could have analyzed and processed that information, reached conclusions and shared them.

There should be no discrimination against using computational power to bulk download and analyze information.

Aaron wasn't even charged with disseminating the information he downloaded, because he never did.

For all "The People" know he was going to analyze the JSTOR docs with machine learning.

All he did was program a computer to do what a human could do, but faster.

Aaron is dead, but it is society that is the biggest loser here.

Any sane and rational system of government would have applied minimal judicial scrutiny to his actions and paid him large sums to make our economy and government more efficient and more fair.

How was he denied a trial? Is this the logical extension that the jeopardy was so great he'd be "forced" to plea?

If there was purely logical thinking going on, push it to a trial, if he won then he'd set an example for all future hackers. If he lost and was rationally willing to kill himself rather than go to prison, that would have still been an option, if prison was even on the final table.

Yes, I believe the jeopardy he was facing was in effect a denial of the right to a fair and speedy trial.

In comparison, Rosa Parks only spent 1 night in jail, and was released on bail. Her trial lasted 30 minutes and she was fined $14.

Yes I am comparing anecdotes, but its important to note the length of prison sentences has been greatly increased since the 60's. The active discouragement of jury nullification makes civil disobedience more dangerous as well.

In my opinion judges and prosecutors are being given too much power for a democratic society to abide.

> denying Aaron the right to a trial by his peers by piling on obscene charges with effective life sentences.

Bingo. The actions of the state are increasingly inconsistent with the wants of the people being governed. Too many politicians only care about what's "righteous", or the public's opinion on a topic, as far as it concerns re-election - beyond that, they don't give a toss. They care about ideology, power, and winning.

> They care about ideology, power, and winning.

I'm coming to believe this point is key to understanding our governmental reality.

It seems like those with sociopathic characteristics (not always true sociopaths) are the ones in power positions, and their underhanded tactics tend to dominate those who care more about good policy.

I am really enjoying Netflix's House Of Cards as its an exploration of this phenomenon.

> I am really enjoying Netflix's House Of Cards as its an exploration of this phenomenon.

Thanks for pointing that out, I will definitely take a look now....love Kevin Spacey.

This article sparked a tangential thought: Why do academics agree to participate in this farce? Why, in this age of incredibly easy-to-share information, do they not simply publish their work themselves (put a PDF on a server somewhere!)? Barring that, why don't universities, all of which have fairly sophisiticated IT departments, host their own researchers results free-of-charge?

Clearly doing research as an academic means swallowing a poison pill.

I ask these questions because a lot of what we do here is similar to what a computer science researcher does. But since we don't answer to anyone, we can publish our results on git hub or a blog, or on jsfiddle or on blo.cks.org.

Which of course begs the question[1]: why purpose do traditional journals even serve? If the content is contributed, and the editing is contributed, is the only thing they contribute the use of the trademark on the journal publication? This is an important question to ask because it seems to me if we gave academics another, better publishing method they'd probably take it.

Because career advancement requires publication in peer-reviewed, quality journals in a relevant field. The people at the top aren't generally keen to delegitimize the reason they are at the top. :) It's hard to fight that battle on top of all the other maneuvering and petty bullshit an academic already has to put up with.

This is why open-access tend to be sudden revolts of entire subfields. Everyone gets together and says, fuck it, we know how to judge ourselves, so let's stop signing over copyright.

I would suggest pecuniary rather than moral reasoning, and a sense of duty to the job rather than the civilization.

I don't think that many "academics" (quotes do to the varied nature of the groups under that label) feel a particularly strong duty to "do the right thing" about spreading knowledge especially if it may cost them their funding or job.

This post reminded me of the Talking Heads song Listening Wind, which also seems to be about a "matyr". No doubt Byrne's opinions have changed a bit in the 30 years since be wrote it, though. http://xms.songmeanings.net/m/song/3530822107858498600/

Well, he also wrote such songs as Psycho Killer. Songs do not necessarily reflect their author's point of view.

And there's also "Stop Making Sense" :)

> But back to civil disobedience. Swartz stole the material, pure and simple, and he seems to feel that he and others have, in this case, the right to steal because they are beholden to a higher moral standard. I am sort of fine with this if he’s willing to accept the consequences, as Ellsberg and the Civil Rights activists were.

This argument has been used to discredit Aaron as an activist, and at worst, to paint him as a spoiled sissy. But I'm not so sure that Aaron should be judged as a civil rights activist because I don't think he intended to promote his cause with civil disobedience.

Instead, I think Aaron seemed to care more about the successful dissemination of the information, with attention to his cause being the secondary objective. Or else why would he engage in such subterfuge to download from JSTOR, when he very well could've just walked into the MIT Library, shouted "FOR FREEDOM!" as he flipped on an AlienWare laptop and the scraper script?

He masked his face, hid his laptop in the closet, because he wanted to actually get the data and disseminate it...the information itself was the greater good, it seems. Unlike MLK Jr., who wanted to get arrested to bring attention to the plight of minorities, getting arrested would prevent Aaron from actually distributing the academic information. Ironically, if Aaron had acted like a MLK Jr. of Information Rights, people would be ripping on him as a showboat.

One of the interesting anecdotes that came from his memorial was from someone who had asked Aaron to deliver the keynote at F2C2012. The person had expected Aaron to talk about the JSTOR incident in order to raise awareness for his cause, but instead, as you probably know, Aaron chose to talk about how the people stopped SOPA:


When Aaron pitched his fundraising drive on HN, IIRC, he didn't put much of an effort, even after he received a huge amount of criticism. Maybe Aaron was just awful at PR in general, but I don't think someone of his skill in civic activism would've come so unprepared to beat the drum if beating the drum was his real objective.

So yes, Aaron deserves some criticism for thinking he could get away with it and for not planning for the worst-case scenario. But to say that he's a wimpy hypocrite for not accepting the jail time for his moral stand seems to miss the point...taking the moral stand seemed secondary to him in comparison to the greater good of spreading information.

And to imply that he was cowardly misses the fact that not too long ago, Aaron was subjected to FBI surveillance for doing something that was undoubtedly legal when he "freed" the PACER archives. That he so quickly jumped back into the fray after that -- nevermind the work he did in raising awareness against SOPA -- strikes me as being pretty brave, if reckless, as far as tech-revolutionists go.

So he wasn't taking a moral stand? But he believed he was doing something for the greater good and took some measures (albeit small ones) to avoid being 'caught.' He didn't do it from his "home network" at Harvard.

So JSTOR is basically a library and they do business with libraries and have some fees but access it generally free and affordable in a lot of contexts. I'm not aware that they restrict access to things. What exactly was the greater good? He just didn't like JSTOR's terms and the fees? Or was there something else? It just wasn't "free enough?"

And MLK Jr's name is being tossed around? Are we serious?

Philosophy grad here, so bear with me. Byrne's point about "where one draws the line with 'higher morality' used as a justification for breaking the law" is deeply fucked up. He seems to be saying that civil disobedience is right if and only if the public sees an act of disobedience as a good cause. Quoth David Byrne: "In civil disobedience actions it’s critical how the acts play out in public—that the perception be that they have done good, not harm."

That's messed up, yo, for a few reasons. But mostly: The public is a multi-faceted organism. Is 'the public' meant to be the majority? A consensus? The intelligentsia? Whatever answer you come up with, you end up with this: morality is dictated by 'the public.' Laws and actions therefore don't have any moral standing outside of the social context they're in. Morality isn't objective.

That sends us down the path to moral relativism, which you may or may not have a problem with. However, if you're someone who supports the idea of civil disobedience, like David Byrne says he is, you should worry. If it turns out that what is moral is dependent on what is accepted by the public, then different groups have different moralities. You have no way of adjudicating between which group is right - you just say: "shit, you believe different things. I guess your beliefs are just as morally right as mine."

That means that the South of 1830, where slavery was popular, was a fine and dandy and moral place. See how this looks like a load of shit now?

The project of civil disobedience, then, stops being about actually doing what's right. It's about changing group attitudes towards X. Like gay marriage: if you want gay marriage to be moral, you change the beliefs of 'the public.' You stop fighting for what's moral - instead, you end up fighting for what your group says is moral. No one has the moral high ground; the winning group just ends up yelling louder.

But that's completely backwards. People fight for gay marriage (or to stop abortion) because they believe those things are right. If they are right - that is to say, they're moral actions or whatever - then their rightness is what supports your beliefs.

It may even turn out that you're wrong: you may have believed something because you thought it was moral, when in reality it was not. That happens. But what we should shrink from saying is that the public determines rightness. Because then there's no real way to be civilly disobedient. There's no point. You're not fighting for a good cause. You're just fighting, and there will never be a day when you can say that we now live in a more moral world.

This is probably the best primer I've ever read on civil disobedience:


The greater purpose isn't to be disobedient or revolt against the system; it's progress-- or in Aaron's case to build a semantic web (3.0). We're so quick to credit him for web 2.0 without realizing that many rules had to be broken to get here. Books were scanned, CD's were ripped, the system was pissed. The web will always be disruptive to the past; progressing it is not easy nor always legal; but it is right.

Umm, why was the title renamed? There is now no indication it refers to Aaron Swartz at all - the main reason I submitted it.

Best article I've seen on the Swarz case. David Byrne is a national treasure.

It's nice to see someone actually trying to think through the issue and consider both sides. Don't feel like I've seen a whole lot of that thus far.

This conversation is extremely shortsighted. Activism isn't about individual acts, it's about ==knowing== the end result is far too valuable f

I thought Swartz's issue was PUBLICLY funded research behind pay walls, not all research... David Byrne missed the boat on this one.

Not all of it is publicly funded. Perhaps very little of it.

I have paid no poll-tax for six years. I was put into a jail once on this account, for one night; and, as I stood considering the walls of solid stone, two or three feet thick, the door of wood and iron, a foot thick, and the iron grating which strained the light, I could not help being struck with the foolishness of that institution which treated me as if I were mere flesh and blood and bones, to be locked up. I wondered that it should have concluded at length that this was the best use it could put me to, and had never thought to avail itself of my services in some way. I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through before they could get to be as free as I was. I did not for a moment feel confined, and the walls seemed a great waste of stone and mortar. I felt as if I alone of all my townsmen had paid my tax. They plainly did not know how to treat me, but behaved like persons who are underbred. In every threat and in every compliment there was a blunder; for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall. I could not but smile to see how industriously they locked the door on my meditations, which followed them out again without let or hindrance, and they were really all that was dangerous. As they could not reach me, they had resolved to punish my body; just as boys, if they cannot come at some person against whom they have a spite, will abuse his dog. I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it.

Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man's sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to have this way or that by masses of men. What sort of life were that to live? When I meet a government which says to me, "Your money or your life," why should I be in haste to give it my money? It may be in a great strait, and not know what to do: I cannot help that. It must help itself; do as I do. It is not worth the while to snivel about it. I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer. I perceive that, when an acorn and a chestnut fall side by side, the one does not remain inert to make way for the other, but both obey their own laws, and spring and grow and flourish as best they can, till one, perchance, overshadows and destroys the other. If a plant cannot live according to its nature, it dies; and so a man.

He was, as I have read, a disturbed young man who maybe sadly wasn’t quite psychologically ready to be a Gandhi figure—should he have realized this ahead of time?

This, to me, gets to the heart of the matter. Aaron meant well, but he lacked strategy and was unprepared for the psychological tactics of the DOJ.

Especially since I've read from numerous sources he suffered depression. As the law was bearing down on him, he was fighting a battle within him. He had no refuge.

An essay by Aaron's girlfriend, Taren Strinebrickner-Kauffman:


  > If [...] would Aaron have killed himself on January 11?
  > The answer is unquestionably no.
I appreciate a willingness to share a unique perspective on something so intensely personal, but I did not see any value in the article's chosen hypothetical situation over any other: dropped charges, never downloaded all that stuff, been committed to a mental institution by caring friends, etc.

While I respect her opinion and understand that she knew Aaron very well, I don't really see why we should trust her opinion on whether he was depressed. Way too close to the issue.

Depression is not (yet) characterized by any physical cause. The only definition of clinical depression is a set of behavioral symptoms. If he didn't have those symptoms (even in retrospect), then he wasn't depressed. "The diagnosis of major depressive disorder is based on the patient's self-reported experiences, behavior reported by relatives or friends, and a mental status examination." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinical_depression

Sure, but you will never find a clinician who would base their depression diagnosis based only on behavior reported by a significant other. Especially immediately following a suicide.

What evidence do you have that he was depressed, other than hearsay and guesswork?

Why is that more reliable than direct statements from someone who lived with him?

I don't have any evidence nor claimed he was depressed. I was commenting on the reliability of significant others' post suicide reports. If I cared to investigate, I would look at almost anything else than her report for reliable evidence. His writings, statements made during his lifetime from those close to him, etc. The sheer amount of things that could color her post (laying blame outside of Aaron, refusal to believe someone she loved and lived with was that unhappy, continuing his battle posthumously, etc.) make it hard to lay much persuasive value in her report.

What evidence would convince you that Aaron was depressed?

Taren is arguing he wasn't depressed, or at least that the prosecution was the main cause of his depression. I would mostly look for evidence that presented itself before the suicide, with a preference for self report.

"The fact that, yes, he is also legally a thief, is almost never mentioned."

First the very notion of being a "thief" when you copy 0's and 1's is still a heavily disputed by a lot of activists. So it is seen wrong by many to categorize this as "theft" when the owner still has its copy of the "item", just as it was seen wrong to prevent black people from sitting where white people were supposed to sit.

Then and most importantly, there are now so many laws out there that basically anyone can be sent to jail for any bullshit reason.

So I'm sorry but I'm not buying that argument where someone is "legally" a thief, public danger, etc.

What interests me is if that law is just or not. Because there are many, many unjust laws which should really need a revamp.

He seems to have his facts wrong. Swartz did have legal access to the articles. He merely used an alternative mechanism for acquiring them quickly.

So breaking into a cabinet in the basement of MIT was legal? And when he hid his face with his bike helmet, he did that even though he knew he wasn't doing anything illegal?

I think even Aaron Swartz knew he was breaking some law at the time he was doing it, but at the same time the prosecutor was going after him for 35-55 years worth of jail time was clearly excessive meant to get him to plead guilty and not go to trial...

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact