Book Review: The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.

“Information wants to be free” goes the slogan of the so-called “free culture movement,” encouraging file sharing, open source software, and a permissive legal environment for modifying and distributing the works of others.

A more complex and subtle axiom offered by the Association of College and Research Libraries is “information has value”: that, as a commodity subject to copyright laws, information can bring advantage to some while marginalizing others. Users must therefore make informed and ethical choices about complying with – or challenging – copyright laws.

For the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, concentrated corporate control reinforced by outdated copyright laws incommensurate with current technologies left him with no choice but to challenge wherever possible this private stranglehold over what he felt should be public information. Arrested for a series of brilliant and daring digital “heists” at MIT in late 2010 and early 2011, in which he covertly downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the commercial JSTOR database with the intent of distributing them freely online, Swartz became the free culture movement’s folk hero before taking his own life on January 11th, 2013.

In the hands of journalist Justin Peters, the life and death of Aaron Swartz becomes the lens for reconsidering the entire history of copyright for the digital age. An accomplished journalist best known for his technology- and sports-related writings for Slate.com, Peters is also a contributing editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and a founding editor of the archly humourous magazine Polite. Greatly expanded from its origins as an online article on Slate, The Idealist is Peters’ first book, grippingly told and with a clear-eyed view of its brilliant but flawed protagonist.

After introducing us briefly to Swartz’ legal predicament and untimely death, Peters actually leaves Swartz behind for more than 100 pages as he explains the history of American copyright legislation, the development of public libraries, the evolution of reproduction technologies and formats, notions of public domain and the quest for the “infinite library” of human knowledge instantly accessible anywhere.

Along the way, The Idealist introduces us to a number of other historical idealists, among them Noah Webster (of the eponymous Dictionary) who lobbied tirelessly (if self-interestedly) for the United States to pass a Copyright Act in 1790, and Herbert Putnam, America’s longest-serving librarian of Congress, who convened a series of copyright conferences leading up to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1909.

When Swartz re-emerges in the narrative in 2002 at age 15, he is a lauded computer programming prodigy (who didn’t actually care much for programming) who would go on to become a co-founder of news aggregator Reddit.com, a frequent conference speaker and a prolific blogger (Peters makes extensive use of Swartz’ online writing).

As well, Swartz shared in the appreciative company of such digital luminaries as World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Bram Cohen of BitTorrent fame and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. While Swartz would lend his support to a host of free culture and Internet activism projects, Peters finds he acquired a reputation for rarely finishing what he started.

Nor was the world quite ready for his ideas. His 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which called for the free distribution of entire databases worth of content in flagrant violation of copyright laws, made even some open access supporters – and many librarians – uneasy. Carrying out the Manifesto with his raid on JSTOR would result in spending the last two years of his life in legal limbo, facing a host of federal charges and the possibility of 95 years in prison, before he hanged himself at aged 26.

For Peters, the tragedy of Aaron Swartz serves to illustrate the paradox of information wanting to be simultaneously both free and expensive, and the consequent mismatch between our laws and the way most of us live online. With copyright laws extending protection ever further into creators’ posthumous futures (will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?) and university libraries sagging under the increasingly crippling financial burden of proprietary databases, The Idealist challenges the reader to recognize their own place as creator, user and curator of the “infinite library” – and how it is up to all of us to choose how to fulfill equitably and ethically its limitless potential.

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.
By Justin Peters.
Scribner, $26.00 352 pp

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 9th, 2016.

 

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