Old analogies do not scale: My first lesson of Swartzgate

This is a personal opinion by former Students for Free Culture board member, Kevin Driscoll.


Two days ago, Aaron Swartz was arrested on charges related to an on-going effort to download millions of academic articles from JSTOR. The story, as reported, goes something like this: Aaron joined the MIT network as a guest and started scraping articles using a custom script. Shortly, JSTOR detected the automated requests and tried to block Aaron’s laptop. He responded by spoofing his MAC address so that the network would assign his laptop a new IP address. This cat-and-mouse game escalated over the course of several months – including a period of time during which JSTOR may have blocked the entire MIT network – and ended up with Aaron sneaking into an off-limits computer closet to hide a laptop and external hard drive on the campus.

He now faces charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, obtaining information from a protected computer and criminal forfeiture. (Read the full indictment on the NYT blog.) Although JSTOR made peace with Swartz, the DOJ intends to proceed. The indictment alleges that Swartz intended to distribute the documents on “filesharing” networks but we haven’t seen any evidence to support this claim.

As student activists and advocates of the open access movement, what can we learn from these events? How will this affect the work we plan to do when we return to school next month? Can we find a balance between the impulse toward radical action and the steady grind of institutional change?

One thing is clear: Old analogies do not scale.

News coverage and online reaction to Swartz’s arrest reveal a painful failure to produce accurate, meaningful analogies for his massive duplication of academic articles.

James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University offered this frequently quoted comparison:

“It’s incredible that the government would try to lock someone up for allegedly looking up articles at a library.”

Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal is also widely quoted as saying that,

“[The arrest is] like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

On the Demand Progress blog, Morgan Callahan wrote:

“[Swartz] is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the Web.”

And, perhaps most disappointing, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, described Swartz’s alleged crimes with a stubborn lack of nuance,

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

As internet-savvy free culture activists, we know that these comparisons fail to describe Swartz’s efforts and stymie real debate. PDFs on a web server are not at all like books on a library shelf. And, unlike a crowbar, Swartz’s script (cutely titled “keepgrabbing.py”) did no lasting damage to JSTOR’s machines. As long as these analogies persist, the urgent need for free culture will remain obscure.

Inaccurate descriptions of Swartz’s activities are representative of a growing misuse of the term “hacking” in news media. While Wikipedia editors struggle over the sprawling number of hacking-related pages, many journalists and commentators have fallen back on the 1990s, CompuServe-era habit of describing all computer-related crimes as
“hacking.” Everything from LulzSec to WikiLeaks to News of the World is now lumped awkwardly together. We must not allow open access or free culture to be added to that pile!

In an excellent blog post at Forbes, Timothly B. Lee describes Swartz’s actions as “reckless activism” and rightly warns about the potential negative effect on the reputation of our movement. He writes,

“Open access advocates have the natural high ground and are gradually winning the debate over the future of academic publishing.”

Open Access works without heroics. It is a reflection of the everyday practices of thousands of students, teachers, and researchers around the world.

We should condemn Swartz’s arrest because the charges are outrageous not because his tactics represent either free culture or the open access movement. The real attack on free culture is discursive, not legal. Bad analogies and out-dated comparisons obscure immediate needs that the Open Access movement seeks to address and the successes we continue to enjoy. We deserve better and we should demand it.

Update (July 25, 2010): Noam Cohen’s coverage in the NYT adds yet another unfortunate comparison to the list:

“A guy walks into a candy store and sees one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays. He picks it up, cups his hands and asks, “What can I get for 68 cents?”

That image came to mind with the case of Aaron Swartz …”

Is that a subtle reference to Rain Man?

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