When Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013, the 26-year-old Internet prodigy and activist was facing felony prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) for illegally downloading thousands of academic journal articles from JStor, an online database. For Swartz, accessing the information was an act of defiance against a system that unjustly restricted it. He’s since become a martyr for the Free Internet movement, which advocates for a barrier-free Web. It only takes Justin Peters a dozen pages of his sympathetic biography of Swartz to trot out one of the movement’s best-known cliches and commandments, “Information wants to be free.” To Peters’s credit, he doesn’t let the idea go uncomplicated.
Swartz’s story has been told before, including in a long article Peters published on Slate mere weeks after his death. The precocious programmer had a hand in creating seminal Web products such as RSS, the technology underlying newsreaders like Flipboard, and he was one of the founders of the online message board Reddit. His radical tactics as an activist occasionally rubbed even those who agreed with him the wrong way. Still, many questioned why he faced imprisonment for a crime they likened to taking too many books out of the library.
The Idealist is compelling, even if it offers no major factual revelations. Instead, Peters tries to place the story in the context of a centuries-long struggle between the owners of intellectual property and those trying to pry it from their control. He unearths some memorable moments, such as when John Philip Sousa warned in 1906 that, without stronger copyright laws, people would stop making music. “Human vocal cords would soon atrophy, then ultimately vanish, like early man’s vestigial tail,” he said. (Sousa got the law he was hoping for, so his theory was never fully tested.)
In debates over intellectual property legislation, policymakers have tended to side with the Sousas, who want to be able to make money from the rights they hold. Peters, whose mother was sued by a record-industry group after his sister downloaded some songs from Napster, makes no bones about throwing in his lot with the losing team. In one chapter, titled “A Tax on Knowledge,” he argues that U.S. intellectual property policy is based on a “dictatorial notion of culture.” In another passage, he compares stringent copyright laws to waves of zombies in a horror movie, “unable to be stopped, only slowed down or outrun.”
Where the Internet is concerned, debate often focuses on the unauthorized distribution of commercial content such as movies and music, aka piracy. There’s wide disagreement about how much piracy costs the entertainment industry in lost revenue. The Motion Picture Association of America has estimated the American economy loses as much as $58 billion a year, though it backed away from that number after being criticized by copyright foes and entertainment groups alike. Swartz’s work focused more on using technology to free academic research and public records, where the argument for freedom of information seems stronger. The government funded much of the research in the JStor database, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to access, and the academics who conducted it weren’t expecting to make a living off royalties. Another database targeted by Swartz, Pacer, contains many documents that aren’t covered by copyright protection at all.
As Peters reminds us, “Information wants to be free” was originally meant as a paradox, not a rallying cry. “Information wants to be free, because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and combine—too cheap to meter,” wrote social activist Stewart Brand in 1987. “It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away.”
Swartz’s death re-proved Brand’s statement. When the news of his suicide broke, there was an immediate outcry against overuse of the CFAA, originally passed in 1986 and modified in haphazard fashion to account for new media, to crack down on people doing things as seemingly minor as violating a website’s terms-of-service agreement. Progress, however, has been elusive. Members of Congress have twice introduced a bill called Aaron’s Law that would offset some of the most far-reaching parts of the CFAA. It’s never made it to a vote.