Free the JSTOR Four Million!

The news that Aaron Swartz, a technologist and activist involved in the early days of Reddit and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, has been indicted in Boston for allegedly breaking into an MIT wiring closet and downloading in excess of four million academic journal articles from JSTOR while a student at, wait for it, Harvard's Center for Ethics, brings to mind a profile of information activist Carl Malamud that ran in TAP just about a year ago:

Malamud is certainly willing to provoke but prefers to be sure the law is on his side. In response to his call to open [the federal court record archive] PACER, a young activist, entrepreneur, and programmer named Aaron Swartz used a bit of code and a trial program at his local library to download nearly 20 million pages of files, which caught the attention of the FBI. Malamud ended up in an interrogation room with two armed agents. “Unlike my good friend Aaron Swartz and others who are willing to stick it to the man,” Malamud says, “I look very carefully at what we’re doing to see if it’s legal or not.”

There's much we don't know about Swartz's case; he's only been indicted today. But the situation serves to highlight something that seems true about information activism in recent years. What with the Obama administration trumpeting the merits of the federal information cache Data.gov, the transparency group the Sunlight Foundation regularly testifying on Capitol Hill, and Malamud becoming an accepted part of the Washington orbit (his campaign for Public Printer got him support on Capitol Hill), it's easy to forget that there's something at all controversial or oppositional about accessing information, or that some people really, really want data to be free -- and others don't. Open data has been mainstreamed. Whatever hacker-culture roots the free information movement might have are subsumed by the idea that simply everyone agrees that data is meant to be free, and the struggle is over the mechanics of freeing it. That's never really been true, as Swartz's case makes plain.

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