Why should not everyone be able to use all the available knowledge that humans have created?
January 31, 2013
Since the sad death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, there has been a lot of discussion of the extent to which the criminal prosecution hanging over him contributed to his suicide. Some have pointed their fingers at MIT, suggesting that, by failing to waive its complaint against him for using its network to download files, the university bears some responsibility for his suicide. MIT has now set up an internal investigation. The prospect of a felony conviction and a prison sentence would be enough to make anyone think that his or her life is effectively over. For a young and exceptionally talented person who acted from noble motives, the idea of going to prison must have been even more shattering, and the depression from which he suffered would have magnified its impact in ways that those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced that condition cannot fully imagine.
The fact that JSTOR has made millions of documents freely available, after Swartz had downloaded them, shows that his actions have had what many people—perhaps to some extent even JSTOR, which after all is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to scholarly publications—believe to be a public benefit. Thousands of researchers are currently putting all of their downloaded PDF files online, often in breach of copyright, as a tribute to Swartz.
There is no doubt that we should improve access to scientific resources, and the Internet makes it almost inevitable that this will happen. The only question is when. As Lawrence Lessig argues, this is knowledge paid for in large part by our taxes. More important still, in the long run, will be raising the level of general access to information throughout the world. The price now asked for a single journal article is equivalent to a month’s earnings in many countries. The Internet makes the ancient dream of a universal library possible. Why should not everyone, anywhere in the world, be able to use, without charge, all the available knowledge that humans have created?