The death of Aaron Swartz, a renowned 26 year old computer genius, has brought the spotlight back on the problem of public goods. Before delving briefly into the difficulties posed by goods and services deemed to be freely accessible, you should read up on the young man if you haven’t. He has a long list of highly distinguished achievements. Aaron fits the definition of a prodigy and the world has lost a young genius who has already been responsible for key technologies that businesses and everyday consumers utilize.
The Case Of Aaron Swartz
Aaron’s crime was that he took information from JSTOR, an academic journals host and content gatekeeper, and made them available publicly for free. This was after he bought 20% of U.S. public domain court cases and again made them available for free. The second incident bears little controversy because what he did was completely legal. U.S. court cases are clearly considered to be the owned by the public so that both prosecutors and defendants can rely on a wealth of preceding court cases to bolster their arguments. The courts did charge a fee for downloading these public domain court case files but the person who bought it was free to do anything he wanted with them. Aaron paid for 20% of the content from his own pocket and made it free for anyone and everyone.
The real issue was with JSTOR and MIT. Aaron did contravene JSTOR’s rules and regulations. As an undergraduate finishing my dissertation, I deal with online journals from multiple providers including JSTOR on a near daily basis. You are not allowed to mass download files and you can only use the files you downloaded for your own research. Much of this is, of course, purely honor code. No one could tell if you passed the files you downloaded to friends and family. Also, mass downloading is detectable but almost always forgivable. Aaron used a laptop in MIT to download plenty of academic journals from JSTOR before making them freely available. This is against the law. He was prosecuted and it is said that he was facing a 30 year jail sentence and a 4 million dollar fine. Aaron committed suicide last week.
The problem, which the DOJ made a meal of, was that academic journals are not legally public goods. But should they be?
The big takeaway that U.S. media has focused on is the heavy handedness of the law. The FBI and the DOJ wanted very badly to make an example of Aaron’s desire to make public goods freely available. Aaron didn’t do any of the above for cash. He could have, but he didn’t. But, he wasn’t a Robin Hood either. The court case files were legally public goods. The problem, which the DOJ made a meal of, was that academic journals are not legally public goods. But should they be?
The Public Good
In economics, a public good is defined as an entity that may be consumed without reducing the amount available for others, and cannot be withheld from those who do not pay for it. It is a problematic good.
I fully understand the arguments that academic knowledge should be made free for the good of humanity. I personally would love to see that happen. Unlike normal goods, the over-consumption of academic knowledge doesn’t cost harm, wastage or inefficiency. In fact, the more people have access to such information the better. There is little reason to keep these behind tight gates. Or is there?
The big problem with public goods is cost. Academic knowledge is produced by billions spent in research and paying the very academics who devote their entire lives to writing a few papers. Many professors have often told us how they spend years completing a paper. The professors are paid by the university and/or by winning research grants. When I interned in SingHealth, I worked with researchers and the core focus, as one would expect, was winning grants. Grants gave us an opportunity to deliver great content that would, in the long run, bring the human race a step forward.
They are online librarians who provide valuable service in cross indexing and maintaining good searchable platforms.
So why are we paying people like JSTOR? It’s simple. JSTOR and many other providers such as PubMed, LexisNexis, etc are online librarians who provide valuable service in cross indexing and maintaining good searchable platforms that allow the unfathomable depth of academic data to be efficiently utilized. It is the same reason we are paying our librarians in school (private libraries) and at public libraries. They help us get our information quickly and aid us when we face roadblocks in finding the information we need. Trust me, getting the right content is not as easy as dumping it in a search box. This is true especially if you are looking deep in a particular focused sector in your research. Also, if you are thinking ‘Google’, Google search ain’t free. It is paid by advertisers and you are the product.
We do not mind paying our local, human, librarians. But we think that academic databases are greedy websites that are there to prevent information from being shared. They are not. There are people behind these sites. They serve a very specific purpose and the work they do is integral to making research useful and accessible. Also, some one has to pay them so that they can feed their kids.
Also, if you are thinking ‘Google’, Google search ain’t free. It is paid by advertisers and you are the product.
It must also be noted that these databases pay royalties to professors as well. They don’t just hold info and bleed people who want to access them. They need to pay the writers a hefty sum of money. This can reach 5 digits for a single paper, especially those written and published in top journals. And this payment is on a monthly basis that can span years. Who is going to pay for that?
If you are thinking that these professors should not be paid so much, think again. Most people are perfectly fine paying hundreds of dollars to catch concerts of their favourite pop stars or to catch sporting events featuring the world’s greatest sports men/women. But these same people, do not want to shill out a dime for a top end academic paper that was written over many years. The nutty professors you have in your mind have done in the academic space equally as much as the sporting / musical / etc geniuses that contribute to the cultural space. They deserve their wages.
The issues I’ve brought up here revolve around cost. We like things to be free. And in this case, it is good that academic knowledge be liberated. But who will want to produce such knowledge if no one is going to pay for it? Would you devote your life to academics if all you did would do little to pay for your food and shelter?
If we want such information to be free and open, then everyone is going to have to chip in.
Unlike physical public libraries, the government cannot fund online academic databases. Why? Because these databases are not confined to geographical borders. If we want such information to be free and open, then everyone is going to have to chip in. This point to taxes and there is no such thing as international taxes. Maybe it’ll happen one day but the amount of coordination and agreements that need to be hammered out between close to 200 countries is going to take decades. And there will be plenty of free riders.
The Idealism Trap
We dream of a world where everyone can access information freely. Geeks like Aaron dream the same. They have the power to change the world and many of them have used it in ways they deem right. There is a big reason why the hacker space is often seen as a liberalizing force by some and a rebellious bunch by others. As much as the internet community has called for governments to understand the internet, they too have to understand the real world. Idealism is not a crime, but when taken in the wrong context and at the wrong time, it can harm the very mechanics that create the things we want to share.
As much as the internet community has called for governments to understand the internet, they too have to understand the real world.
Aaron wasn’t faultless in the JSTOR, MIT fiasco. The same can be said of the DOJ and FBI. Mistakes were made by both parties and the result was a tragic death of a very young, idealistic and carefree spirit. While one can spend much effort arguing who was at greater fault, time is best served pondering the need for each party to understand each other. In this digital age, there shouldn’t be a dichotomy between the digital world and the real world. They must converge in order for humanity to move forward.
Therefore, it is best the world understand the ideas of the liberal geeks. Also, the geek space should make an effort to understand this very concept and problem of public goods. Without a good dose of realism, idealism is nothing but a powerful yet unwieldy force that can do as much damage as the good it aims to create. After all, this blog is entitled ‘thoughts of a former idealist’ for the very same reason.
Time to wake up.