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Wed, January 29, 2020

AARON SWARTZ, THE CORSAIR OF OPEN ACCESS

It has been four years since the suicide of the hacktivist and computer programming genius. On I Diavoli, we want to honor him through the “moral imperative” for which he fought: sharing. His words, his battles, his “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto” «There is a moment, immediately before life becomes no longer worth living, when the world appears to slow down and all its myriad details suddenly become brightly, achingly apparent.»

This is the opening of a post dated January 18, 2007. It is the story of a suicide, entitled “A Moment Before Dying”.

It was written by Aaron Swartz on his blog, hactivist, programmer, co-author of the RSS format, Reddit’s corsair, computer string genius, but above all digital fighter for the “human right” of access to knowledge and information.

«Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. (…) It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.»

These are his words, along with those of other activists, written in black and white in the 2008 Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto.

In 2011, Aaron was arrested for downloading about 4.8 million academic articles from the JSTOR archive from the Boston MIT secure network.

Six years after that blog story, on January 11, 2013, he was found dead, after committing suicide in his apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York.

Swartz’s life has been a hymn to the free dissemination of content, a battle for freedom of knowledge sharing and against the privatization of information.

What does it mean to be an intellectual? Swartz was wondering. It means to go further, it means to think.

“It’s the tendency to not simply accept things as they are but to want to think about them, to understand them. To not be content to simply feel sad but to ask what sadness means. To not just get a bus pass but to think about the economic reasons getting a bus pass makes sense. I call this tendency the intellectual.”

Doing counterinformation, moving within the galaxy of communication guerrilla, deconstructing the discourse of power, tracking down the media that do not always offer a collective service: this was his mission, to be carried out also through blogs.

«And so I believe blogs are important insofar as they help us move away from this sorry spectacle (it’s 2005 and he referred to some articles on the NYT, ed.) and towards a real democracy. Blogs, of course, can help spread propaganda — and no doubt, most do — but they can also help stem it. Political blogs can help pull people into politics, tell them things they wouldn’t otherwise hear, and lead them to organize their own projects (…) One of the most important things I think blogs do, though, is teach people. The media, as I’ve noted, is supremely unintelligent. But I don’t think the people of this country are. And one of the most striking things about blogs to me is how they almost never talk down to their readership.»

It has been four years since the suicide of the Aaron Swartz, and on “I Diavoli” we want to honor him through the “moral imperative” for which he fought: sharing.

As Guido Brera wrote in “La Lettura” del Corriere della Sera, “many things have changed inside and outside the impalpable spaces of global connection. Just think of a certain use of “falsehood” — once an instrument of playful resistance, inspiring irreverent provocations and refined sabotage (from Orson Welles’ famous radio drama to the media mockery organized by activists who identify themselves in Luther Blissett’s multiple-use name), useful to unveil the vices and tics of the information industry. Today, conversely, falsehood is perfectly subsumed by a new political business model in the production cycle of fake news, an essential tool for building consensus. Or, let’s consider the form that sharing has taken in the gears of the sharing economy, where pooling feeds the profit of some.”

This is why, today more than ever, it is important to share the text of the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto”, the result — once again — of collective work and sharing (published in Italian here in “Aubreymcfato” and here by a group of activists on January 14, 2013, ed.)

«Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.
That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.
Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.
Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.
Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.
We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.
With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?
July 2008, Eremo, Italia
#aaron swartz#guerrilla open access manifesto