Book Review

The Politics of Information Access: Contextualizing Aaron Swartz in American Intellectual History

Peters, Justin. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.     New York: Scribner, 2016. 337 pages.

Review by Scott Richard St. Louis

            Late in September 2010, a skilled programmer accessed a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and executed a script designed to download JSTOR articles at alarming speed. Known as scraping, this process violated JSTOR’s terms of service and threatened to overwhelm the JSTOR servers in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Staffers at JSTOR responded by banning the scraper’s MIT IP address. However, the scraping resumed early the next morning at a different MIT IP address, and a game of tit-for-tat ensued between the JSTOR team and the MIT scraper. The problem ceased the following month, when JSTOR blocked the entire MIT campus from accessing the database on October 9. Service was restored on October 12, and the scraping ceased.

However, the problem returned late in December. A few days into the new year, engineers at MIT tracked the downloads to a network switch in the wiring closet of Building 16. There, one of the engineers discovered a laptop plugged directly into the network. The school responded by installing a surveillance camera in the closet. By January 6, the camera had captured images of a young man entering the closet to check on the laptop. Later that day, Aaron Swartz – a celebrated free culture advocate and fellow in the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University – was arrested on felony charges of breaking and entering (195-219).

Government prosecutors initially offered a deal to Swartz. In exchange for pleading guilty to one felony count, Swartz would spend a few months in a federal prison before completing a period of supervised release during which his access to computers would be limited. Frustrated by these conditions, and concerned about the effects of a felony conviction on his future, Swartz refused the deal. Prosecutors at the US Attorney’s Office in Boston then built a much stronger case against him, eventually indicting Swartz on thirteen felony charges that carried a maximum penalty of ninety-five years in prison and more than three million dollars in fines. Immersed in a costly, tiring, and deeply frightening situation which he could neither change nor escape, Aaron Swartz committed suicide on January 11, 2013 (1-10).

Less than one month after this tragic death, Justin Peters – Slate correspondent and contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review – published “The Idealist,” an article about the rise and fall of Aaron Swartz. Earlier this year, he published a book with the same title in order to expand upon his previous work. For Peters, the grim and the idealistperplexing facts of Swartz’s story brought to mind a number of questions for which only a book-length examination would suffice: “Why had the US attorneys been so intent on sending Swartz to prison? Why did Swartz choose to hang himself rather than go to trial or accept a plea bargain? How did academic research papers come to be considered private property, protected by law? How did accessing that material without explicit authorization come to be considered a federal crime?” (11). Surprisingly absent from this paragraph are some larger, more contentious questions. What did Swartz intend to do with the JSTOR articles? Did his defiance of the law contain any political or moral legitimacy? Was it right for MIT to remain formally neutral in his case? Such questions, challenging as they are, cry out for answers.

Peters makes it clear from the beginning that his method for addressing a constrained set of questions does not involve striving for absolute exhaustiveness: “The Idealist is not meant as a comprehensive biography of Aaron Swartz or a comprehensive history of Internet activism or American copyright law … Instead, The Idealist is a provisional narrative introduction to the story of free culture in America, using Swartz’s life as a lens on the rise of information sharing in the digital age” (ix). Despite these limits, the book should be of interest for intellectual historians and other educated readers seeking to learn more about the contraction of the public domain in American copyright law over the past two centuries, a phenomenon which exerts considerable influence on the infrastructure of scholarly communication in the twenty-first century, for better or worse.

Central to Peters’ argument about the need to contextualize Swartz within a broader intellectual history is an excerpt from The Media Lab by Stewart Brand, first published in 1987: “Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away … because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.”[1] Essentially, Peters argues that this paradox, as a central theme in the history of American intellectual property law, is key to understanding Swartz’s tragic downfall: “Of course, to tell the story of Aaron Swartz requires more than just the story of Aaron Swartz – the difficult, immoderate men and women who preceded him as caretakers of the cultural brain must also be included … His story … cannot adequately be understood without realizing that his predecessors’ lives and works, taken together, created the system that produced, defined, and destroyed him” (15). In other words, Peters attempts to utilize the personal emphasis of biography to render more approachable the complicated political, legal, and technical details of intellectual history.

Unfortunately, the first half of the book is deeply flawed, making the work as a whole feel incomplete and less ambitious than it ought to be. In seeking to produce “a basic narrative introduction to the history of copyright and free culture in America” (ix-x), Peters makes two mistakes. First, he chooses to focus on “various representative individuals” whom he finds “interesting and significant” (x), but he does not provide readers with any of the specific criteria that he devised to identify these figures. Even more problematic than this fuzzy description is the fact that Aaron Swartz is invisible from the beginning of the first chapter on page 17 to early in the fifth chapter, where his name finally reappears on page 123. In the space between, Peters lays out a history of American copyright law, from Noah Webster’s advocacy efforts in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998.[2] Without any description of Peters’ approach to researching and writing this history, it is difficult to determine whether any of his insights about it are truly original. Moreover, he risks losing the attention of his audience by failing to make consistent and explicit connections between critical moments in the history of American copyright and the importance of these moments to the work of Swartz. This only begins to change when Swartz returns to the book among a group of public domain activists listening to oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the 2002 case of Eldred v. Ashcroft. Arguments for the petitioner in this case were made by the distinguished Harvard Law professor and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig, who became a mentor and close friend to Swartz (123).

The second half of the book shows some improvement by Peters, whose narrative style becomes livelier. In the sixth chapter, Peters clearly demonstrates that he is not interested in producing a simple hagiography of Swartz. Indeed, he finds that Swartz was “ferociously intelligent but inexperienced with life” (151), his behavior often “more than a little melodramatic” (159), and his extraordinary precociousness the result not only of his natural talents, but also of his family’s affluence: “His parents had had the wherewithal to underwrite his youthful exceptionalism; he had been free to opt out of systems that did not regard him as special” (151). Peters also describes Swartz’s struggles with ulcerative colitis and depression in this chapter (165-166). On the whole, he offers a nuanced portrait of a brilliant individual who struggled not only with challenges to his physical and mental health, but also an uncompromising impatience sustained by considerable socioeconomic privilege.

Chapter seven begins the captivating narrative of Swartz’s radicalization and the subsequent legal troubles which led to his painful unraveling. The online publication of his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” in July 2008 became a cause for discomfort among mainstream open access advocates, a group largely composed of academics and information professionals interested in lawful efforts for incremental reform (173-181). Chapters eight through ten bring this narrative to its climax – the JSTOR incident – and its tragic denouement. Peters concludes with a frustratingly vague call to reform: “We can amend bad laws. We can promote better modes of culture. We can choose to create systems that can be opened without breaking; that tolerate deviance without collapsing; that regard the unfamiliar not as a threat, but as an opportunity” (269-270).

Though the book’s problems are conspicuous and disappointing, it is worth reading, no matter one’s own opinions about open access and the free culture movement. Its notes and bibliography display an interesting array of sources, including Swartz’s blog posts, internal JSTOR e-mails, archival materials from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, graduate dissertations, and dozens of scholarly monographs. By situating Aaron Swartz within the broader history of intellectual property law in the United States, Peters encourages his audience to question how and why the chasm between what the law permits, and what technology enables, has become so wide.

Scott Richard St. Louis is a recent graduate of Grand Valley State University. He is currently employed at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Scott St. Louis(1)Michigan.

[1] See Stewart Brand, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (New York: Viking, 1987), 202.

[2] Despite its problems, this section of the book effectively guides readers through the shrinking of the public domain in American copyright law over the course of two centuries. Passed in 1790, the first federal copyright statute “provided for an initial term of fourteen years, renewable once” (30). Just over two centuries later, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 “extended the copyright term on any given work created before 1978 to ninety-five years after its first publication. Works published after 1977 would remain under copyright until seventy years after the author’s death” (119).

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