I think that in both the cases of the PACER documents and the JSTOR documents Swartz was right to release to the public the information that he obtained. The effects of what he did in the first case of PACER is immediately obvious: change occurred and the court systems were forced to amend their policies and comply with the law. What the PACER people were doing, turning a huge profit on public records, was illegal under the E-Government of 2002 which said that courts could only charge an amount for public documents that offset the costs of maintaining that information, and no more. By organizing a movement that uploaded all of these documents to a site for free, he was able to create change where change was needed.
It doesn’t appear that what Swartz did with the PACER documents was illegal, but even if it was, I support his behaviors. In order for change to occur in such a large governmental operation, the options are rather limited. One option would be to create so much public upheaval that the government has no choice but to respond to the demands. This method may work in widespread, more important cases such as whether or not to invade Syria, but it is unlikely to raise that kind of continued support for something like a court system charging too much for public records. Another option would be to sue, a method that would not only be very time consuming, but also require an extraordinary amount of money, money that only large corporations and very wealthy individuals have. And so in reality, suing was not an option for Swartz, or for the majority of citizens for that matter. Aaron Swartz saw another option though, an option that to him was not only far easier but also more co st and time and effective, and that was to download the documents and then place them on website for free access for all. This created the change that he was looking for and exposed the corruption and injustice that was occurring. Some could argue with the course of action taken by Swartz, but the end results speak for themselves: the governmental branch complied with the law and made the necessary information more available to the public.
And then in the JSTOR case, Swartz saw a similar sort of issue: an entity that possessed valuable information that was hoarding it rather than making it easily available. JSTOR was the keeper of many scholarly journals and articles, a huge wealth of knowledge and scientific developments. It is easy to make the argument that these papers should be made available to the public for the overall advancement of humanity. For example there was a fourteen-year-old kid who had access to JSTOR and was reading articles when he thought of a way to test for pancreatic cancer in its very early stages. Up until this point, this was not something that was possible. Up until this point we were only recognizing pancreatic cancer when it was too late to do anything about it besides update your will and tie up any other loose ends in your life. But because these documents were available to the public, we created an advance in medical technology and in effect, saved countless lives. And th is is only one example.
But it’s not as if JSTOR was hoarding all of these documents and screaming like a troll under a bridge that no one was allowed to look at them. In fact, anyone was allowed to look at them, provided that they had enough money. And therein again lay the problem, money being a barrier to information. This was the common theme across both the PACER and the JSTOR companies: that there was valuable and important information that was only released in ways that would generate the maximum profit. This was something that went against what in many people’s eyes is the Internet’s greatest purpose: the dissemination of information. As someone who passionately loved the Internet like Swartz did, it’s not surprising that he went after targets that tried to impede on the revolution that the Internet
attempted to create.
And what the Internet is doing is nothing short of incredible. The access that we have to information today compared to twenty years ago is mind blowing. For example, in the past the only places we could get news from were the major news sources on the television, radio, and newspaper. These sources have throughout history proved to be easily manipulated and too often sources of only propaganda, not news. But for anybody to be able report honest news through a medium such as the Internet is the first time that we know of that it’s happened. And so today people are able to get real news of what is actually happening, and not just what a news channel or government wants you to think. Swartz knew this intimately I’m sure, and that’s part of why he so passionately fought, and eventually gave up his life, for information to be free and easily accessible.
Where Swartz ran into problems in the JSTOR case though was that the documents he was surreptitiously downloading were not rightfully, legally speaking, a part of the public domain as the PACER documents were, and so therefore JSTOR had every right to prosecute him for the security breach and violation of copyright laws. A large part of the issue though is that the copyright system that we have today comes from an antiquated time, a time well before the free expanses of the Internet. The negative sides of the peer-to-peer file sharing that occur and occurred in the JSTOR case are numerous. For example people are not financially compensated in the same way as before, but regardless, it seems rather obvious that file sharing is here to stay. To long for the days before file sharing makes about as much sense as horse enthusiasts longing for the days before cars. We can sit and gripe all we want, but there’s no going back.
Part of the issue between the governmental laws and the Internet is that the government is incredibly cumbersome and slow to change, while the Internet can change in an instant. Therefore the Internet will inherently progress exponentially quicker than its overall ruling body, and this leaves the government floundering in the dust, gasping for air in an attempt to catch up. The government as its currently set-up will never be able to change anywhere near as quickly as the Internet does, and so it is easier for them to try to impede the change rather than to drastically overhaul themselves, and that is exactly what they’re doing when they apply the ancient copyright laws to the new world of the Internet. And that, I believe, is one of the key issues in the battle between the government and the Internet.
I believe that it’s only a matter of time before copyright laws catch up to the change that the Internet has created and amend their laws to something that is more in harmony with the current culture. I believe that the moral thing to do for the evolution of humanity is not to slow down the Internet to make more it harder to create change, but to speed up and improve the government to make it more responsive. Those who make their living under the current copyright laws will need to adapt and evolve, as they have already been doing, and that is just the nature of the world: nothing stays the same. It is up to as a collective though to try and ensure that the change is in an overall positive direction.
But at the time that Swartz downloaded the JSTOR documents he was in violation of the current copyright laws, and so in light of this, yes, he was a criminal who was lawfully arrested for what he did. But does that make it wrong what he did? Was it immoral? That is subjective because of course not following what the law says is not necessarily immoral, and in fact it could mean that that person is more morally inclined than what the law dictates. Perhaps that person is willing to sacrifice something of themselves for the greater good. For a historical example of this we need to look no further than Rosa Parks.
Was what it illegal what Ms. Parks did on December 1, 1955 when she refused to leave her seat on the bus? Yes. Morally wrong? Only the most ignorant among us would think so. Laws are there for a reason and for some laws the reasons are obvious, as is the case in violence, theft, etc. For other laws though the reason is not so obvious, and I believe that it is up to us as citizens to question all the laws that we come across and determine whether or not they are moral, ethical, and sensible. If they are not, then I believe it is our duty to do something, anything, to help create change, because that is the only way that we can generate the positive evolution of our society.
And so in the spirit of Rosa Parks, Swartz saw in both JSTOR and PACER (among other things such as SOPA and PIPA) a moral and ethical dearth that needed to be addressed. And for this I whole-heartedly support what he did.
I believe that this same logic holds true in both the cases of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA and what was discovered through WikiLeaks. Both of these cases revealed where the US government and military were being deceitful and morally compromised, to put it lightly. The United States citizens in both of these cases, as well as anyone else, had a right to know what their government was doing. They had a right to know things that were not reported through the major news stations, and to know where their tax dollars were going. Because of these whistleblowers, the number of cases where the US government was caught in blatant lies or doing things that were morally and ethically deplorable are countless. This is a situation that needs to be remedied. Transparency is the only way to have a healthy and cooperative relationship between a government and its citizens, and this is what these whistleblowers were trying to foster.
Was what Edward Snowden and Julien Assange did illegal? Yes. Morally wrong? Again, that’s subjective. People can argue that they compromised American security by releasing classified documents, and that may or may not be true, but I believe that the value of the secrets they revealed was so much greater. I believe that the morality of exposing these horrible truths far outweigh any potential immorality of compromising American security, especially since it’s unclear whether or not that actually happened or if it’s just a theoretical argument.
And so when it comes to cyber crimes, or any laws for that matter, I believe that we need to stand back and make an objective, holistic, and morally informed decision before jumping to any conclusions about right or wrong. The evolution of society depends on people that are innovative thinkers and who challenge the status quo; and anybody who is a radically forward thinker and/or ahead of their time will face much opposition, just like Rosa Parks did. But these are also the same people that are needed for societal growth and progress. All of this must be taken into consideration when casting judgment upon someone like Aaron Swartz, and it is my firm belief that while Aaron may have broken laws, everything that he did was morally right. I believe that if more people follow in the footsteps of people like Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, and Julien Assange, that the governments and major corporations will have no choice but to change and improve their behavior and laws.