Aaron Swartz and his legacy of Internet activism

India is digitizing rapidly. There are good things and bad things along the way, speed bumps and cautions to remember. Weekly column Terminal it focuses on all things connected and unconnected – digital issues, politics, ideas and topics dominating the conversation in India and the world.

Aaron Swartz died 10 years ago, driven to suicide by overreaching prosecutors by U.S. attorneys who sought to sentence him to 35 years in prison for mass downloading scientific journals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was a technological genius who championed open knowledge and an open internet. He helped create the Rich Simple Site and Creative Commons, and co-founded reddit and the digital rights organization Demand Progress. In addition to technological contributions, Swartz helped liberate a wealth of information from government databases and create open access libraries and projects.

More than anything else, Swartz is known for “The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”, which was a call to rally and fight against powerful companies that store information and knowledge. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto was a call to scientists, researchers and intellectuals to fight against the anarchic system that blocked all knowledge and culture in the world. In Swartz’s words:

“Information is too much. But like any power, there are those who want to keep it to themselves. The entire world’s scientific and cultural heritage, published for centuries in books and journals, is increasingly digitized and locked away by a handful of private corporations. Do you want to read articles with the most famous results of science? You will have to send huge sums to publishers like Reed Elsevier.’

His death was a tragic loss to the entire internet community that actively worked with him to keep it open. Swartz’s legacy continues to live on among several open access movements and projects that still promote his ideas. Projects like Sci-Hub and LibGen fight the gatekeepers of knowledge by providing access to scientific journals and books. His manifesto and work continue to inspire future generations of technologists who have taken up the cause of the open internet and actively worked to liberate information. Some of them continue to follow his call from the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:

“We need to take information wherever it is stored, make copies of it and share it with the world. We need to take the out-of-copyright stuff 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 must fight for Guerrilla Open Access.”

For the uninitiated, these words and calls for liberation can easily be confused with BigTech and India’s IT giants’ vision of information infrastructures where people’s personal data are forcibly collected to build private products or government projects like Aadhaar, UPI, UHI or Digital Locker. The key difference here is the power of information and who controls it. People’s personal data must be under control and all government-generated scientific and administrative information in the public domain.

Currently, technology companies have taken control of the information and Internet infrastructure around the world. They co-opted the words of online communities to fit their narratives. In the name of openness and building digital India, personal data has been redacted. Against this commodification of information, Swartz warned of how the powerful are taking control of information that should belong to the people. People who understood this resisted this very idea of ​​guardians of knowledge and information.

With pressure from Internet.Org, Facebook is becoming the guardian of the Internet in third world countries. In India, the struggle for “net-neutrality” has shown a way to challenge these projects and continue to spread these practices around the world. One could compare the efforts made during the fight for “Net Neutrality” to the practices used during the SOPA-PIPA protests led by Swartz. These digital rights enforcement practices emerged in the early 2010s and have spread worldwide.

In India, there is an information asymmetry between citizens, big tech and big government. Big Tech and the government forcefully collect information from the people, both becoming increasingly secretive and powerful. Two new bills – the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill 2022 and the Indian Telecommunications Bill 2022 – both ignore our right to privacy and continue to force us to share information with Big Tech and the government. Ideally, we need government information in the public domain and people’s personal information kept private. “Transparency for the state and privacy for the rest of us.”

To build this future for our society, we must embrace the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto to reverse the information asymmetry between citizens and big tech government. This can only happen if we build alternative networks of information infrastructures that support these ideas. These information networks cannot be built overnight, but we must strive for them. Sci-Hub and LibGen are some examples of these information infrastructures, and not only do we need to support them, but we need to build more of them.

Srinivas Kodali is a digitization researcher and hacktivist.


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