Monday, 14 January 2013

Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

PDF Tribute: My papers are here.

Aaron Swartz committed suicide. He is one of those persons who falls in the same category of people like Julian Assange, people who are most hated by companies and governments in general, because they expose their actual behavior and fight against laws that are nonsensical and stupid. Unfortunately, the time when people like them will be more valued by society than Mark Zuckenberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates is far, far away. I wonder if most people can even see what's the difference between them. Today, I will not give any clue. Instead, I will write about the desperate times we are living in.

We do live in desperate times. Well, WE are always living desperate times. But from time to time, desperation hits those who look at us as their assets. Aaron Swartz was being  judged by hacking the site of JSTOR, a scientific publisher like Elsevier (do you remember this one? That from the boycott...), and distributing the content (scientific articles) for free. Although MIT, which administrates JSTOR, decided to drop the charges, the government of the USA decided that they should continue with them, which meant that Aaron was facing the possibility of being forced to spend 35 years (3 5 Y E AR S ! ! !) in jail for the horrible, despicable, inhumane crime of spreading knowledge for free. A crime that no government in the world can leave unpunished.

Let us put things in context a bit. Aaron would spend 35 years together with murderers, rapists and whoever else committed that kind of crime for committing the, once gain, horrible, despicable, inhumane, grotesque, crime of spreading scientific papers in the internet for free. How many years do you get for murder? And for rape? Because, of course, they are basically the same kind of crime as distributing knowledge for free. As Carmen Ortiz, the Attorney for Massachusetts, said “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.” Is there anyone in the 21st century that really believes that every theft, from everyone, in every circumstance is the same? I surely don't.

Yes, it's true that if you do something against the law you should be punished. But remember that taking this literally would mean that it was okay to mistreat black people in South Africa under the Apartheid law. Some laws need to be changed. And some punishments need to be put into context! Come on, we are not naive. We know that many laws are concerned with protecting the interests of those who detain some power, simply because governments rely on them (or are them many times) to remain ruling. All laws, I repeat, ALL LAWS should be continuously discussed and, eventually, changed. Ask all minorities.

Aaron's death brings back many other issues. For instance, the role of scientific publishers today. I wrote many times in this blog explaining that they not only used to force the author to pass to them the copyright of the paper, but also pay nothing for peer reviewing. Today, some "nice" journals just forces you to release the copyright under a creative commons attribution. If they cannot have it, you can't too. :)

The point is that, in the past, these publishers could force those things because the scientists had no other way of mass dissemination of papers. We were forced to accept their terms if we wanted our work to be seen by a larger community. Other ways of dissemination were too limited. But today, we have the internet. We have email. They really don't add any value to our papers that we cannot do ourselves, to be very honest and direct. Because we noticed that, they have to fight to keep their niche in the market. So they use the law, which likes to protect their likes, and lobbies. Yes, lobbies. Everyone in the scientific community knows that to be awarded a grant, whoever is giving you the money will look in what scientific journals you published your papers. And they know that, today, that is the only reason why we still publish on them. It's not because they add anything in terms of science and knowledge, it's because we are chained to this money-feedback-loop.

This, to a lesser extent, also happens in cinema and music. Of course, you must take into consideration the differences in the areas. Still, whenever I rent a DVD I am forced to watch an advertisement saying that if I copy a DVD I'm not better than a thief. I'm not sure what is the penalty for that, but I wouldn't be surprised if that is also harsher than for murder and rape. Now, if you consider that Hollywood movies have profits (PROFITS!) of the order of MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, and in some cases of the order of HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, how do they really want to convince people that if you copy a DVD you're damaging their industry. Of course, you shouldn't do it because it's against the law, but we are looking here at some disproportionate claim. One thing is to say "Don't do it, it's against the law.". I can accept that, because it's the truth, but saying to you that "Don't do it, because you would be an evil people that is destroying the cinema industry" while some movies have a profit of $100 000 000 dollars is outrageous! Again, they misuse the motto stealing is stealing.

I really hope that people don't forget Aaron Swartz or the still-alive-but-we-don't-know-for-how-long-yet Julian Assange. In fact, it's important not to forget the reason why they are persecuted rather than simply their faces or names. As humans, they probably have many flaws which we don't even know (I wouldn't threaten my reputation by any of them, by the way), but the deeds by which their are (or were) being hunted were noble (yes, tacky, but true!). It's also important to know that they are not the only ones that suffered or are suffering for fighting for free knowledge and truth. There are others and, trust me, you will see many more stories in the coming years. I assure you.

By the way, before I finish, I've been reading in many places that everyone is blaming the prosecutor for Aaron's death and calling that person a bully. While that may be true, something I'm not gonna discuss, a deeper truth is that this person is just being a scapegoat for the position and behavior of the government and the lobbies that pressed for it. Don't let them distract you. Please.

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