Miskatonic University Press

The Idealist

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The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet, by Justin Peters, is a workmanlike overview of Swartz’s life and the mass JSTOR download that got him arrested and ultimately led to his suicide. It’s also a rambling partial history of copyright and open access in the United States. All of its inadequacies are set out by the author himself in his introduction, except for one: it’s not available through open access. It should be.

In the introduction, Peters says:

The Idealist is not mean as a comprehensive biography of Aaron Swartz or a comprehensive history of Internet activism or American copyright law. Little at all about this book is comprehensive. Someone could easily make another book consisting exclusively of material omitted from this one, and if you do, please send me a copy. The Idealist is a provisional narrative introduction to the story of free culture in America, using Swartz’s life as a lens on the reuse of information sharing in the digital age.

Bear that in mind, and that the first hundred pages are a history of copyright in America that shifts into a discussion of the Library of Congress and Vannevar Bush, and you’ll better appreciate the book for what it is. We do get the story of Michael Hart and Project Gutenberg, and background on Carl Malamud and Lawrence Lessig and how Swartz got involved with their work. The details of Swartz’s downloading at MIT and the response from the university, JSTOR and the government are set out clearly. All of this makes the remaining 170 pages of the book—not counting the detailed endnotes, bibliography and index—a good overview of Swartz’s life and work to anyone first looking at it in depth, and there may be a few things new to people already familiar with the story, but the real book about Swartz remains to be written.

I think of Aaron Swartz every time I see this.
I think of Aaron Swartz every time I see this.

There are some odd asides, like this snark about Richard Stallman:

He called the program GNU, a “recursive acronym” that stands for “GNU’s Not Unix.” (Unix is a popular computer-operating [sic] system. A gnu is also a large, hairy wildebeest, an animal to which Stallman bears a faint resemblance, if you squint and use your imagination).

And there is some bad writing:

Like its arachnoid namesake, the Web was good at drawing people in.

Peters’s discussion of Swartz’s political involvement seems inadequate, and I was surprised there was no mention of his afterword to Cory Doctorow’s 2013 novel Homeland. The book is under a CC BY-NC-ND license, so I can quote it in full here; if The Idealist was, Peters could have done the same.

Afterword by Aaron Swartz, Demand Progress (co-founder, Reddit.com)

Hi there, I’m Aaron. I’ve been given this little space here at the end of the book because I’m a flesh-and-blood human and, as such, I can tell you something you wouldn’t believe if it came out of the mouth of any of those fictional characters:

This stuff is real.

Sure, there isn’t anyone actually named Marcus or Ange, at least not that I know, but I do know real people just like them. If you want, you can go to San Francisco and meet them. And while you’re there, you can play D&D with John Gilmore or build a rocketship at Noisebridge or work with some hippies on an art project for Burning Man.

And if some of the more conspiracy-minded stuff in the book seems too wild to be true, well, just google Blackwater, Xe, or BlueCoat. (I myself have a FOIA request in to learn more about “persona management software,” but the Feds say it’ll take three more years to redact all the relevant documents.)

Now I hope you had fun staying up all night reading about these things, but this next part is important, so pay attention: what’s going on now isn’t some reality TV show you can just sit at home and watch. This is your life, this is your country – and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.

I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop “the system.” Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control. I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.

A little over a year ago, a friend called to tell me about an obscure bill he’d heard of called the Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeitting Act, or COICA. As I read the bill, I started to get more and more worried: under its provisions, the government would be allowed to censor websites it didn’t like without so much as a trial. It would be the first time the U.S. government was given the power to censor its citizens’ access to the net.

The bill had just been introduced a day or two ago, but it already had a couple dozen senators cosponsoring it. And, despite there never being any debate, it was already scheduled for a vote in just a couple days. Nobody had ever reported on it, and that was just the point: they wanted to rush this thing through before anyone noticed.

Luckily, my friend noticed. We stayed up all weekend and launched a website explaining what the bill did, with a petition you could sign opposing it that would look up the phone numbers for your representatives. We told a few friends about it and they told a few friends and within a couple days we had over 200,000 people on our petition. It was incredible.

Well, the people pushing this bill didn’t stop. They spent literally tens of millions of dollars lobbying for it. The head of every major media company flew out to Washington, D.C. and met with the president’s chief of staff to politely remind him of the millions of dollars they’d donated to the president’s campaign and explain how what they wanted — the only thing they wanted — was for this bill to pass.

But the public pressure kept building. To try to throw people off the trail, they kept changing the name of the bill — calling it PIPA and SOPA and even the E-PARASITES Act — but no matter what they called it, more and more people kept telling their friends about it and getting more and more people opposed. Soon, the signers on our petition stretched into the millions.

We managed to stall them for over a year through various tactics, but they realized if they waited much longer they might never get their chance to pass this bill. So they scheduled it for a vote first thing after they got back from winter break.

But while members of Congress were off on winter break, holding town halls and public meetings back home, people started visiting them. Across the country, members started getting asked by their constituents why they were supporting that nasty Internet censorship bill. And members started getting scared — some going so far as to respond by attacking me.

But it wasn’t about me anymore — it was never about me. From the beginning, it was about citizens taking things into their own hands: making YouTube videos and writing songs opposing the bill, making graphs showing how much money the bill’s cosponsors had received from the industries pushing it, and organizing boycotts putting pressure on the companies who’d endorsed the bill.

And it worked — it took the bill from a political nonissue that was poised to pass unanimously to a toxic football no one wanted to touch. Even the bill’s cosponsors started rushing to issue statements opposing it! Boy, were those media moguls pissed…

This is not how the system is supposed to work. A ragtag bunch of kids doesn’t stop one of the most powerful forces in Washington just by typing on their laptops!

But it did happen. And you can make it happen again.

The system is changing. Thanks to the Internet, everyday people can learn about and organize around an issue even if the system is determined to ignore it. Now, maybe we won’t win every time — this is real life, after all — but we finally have a chance.

But it only works if you take part. And now that you’ve read this book and learned how to do it, you’re perfectly suited to make it happen again. That’s right: now it’s up to you to change the system.

Aaron Swartz