Open access to scholarly literature and research online depends upon an open Internet. It is easy to forget this is not a given. The Internet has become such an integral part of our daily lives as academics. We can hardly imagine now a world without it. We have sensed its potential and have been building an information infrastructure based on our experiences with its free beginnings. It is easy to take that freedom for granted.
It was one year ago today that Congressional leaders in the United States shelved two pieces of legislation, ostensibly geared toward curbing online piracy, but which could have had far-reaching and unintended consequences, threatening through censorship this concept of a free and open Internet.
It was a close call. The House bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate version, the PROTECT Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), were widely believed, both within Congress and among their supporters in the media industry (including many commercial academic publishers), to be destined for easy passage. However, a groundswell of organizational and, most significantly, citizen opposition forced the lawmakers to back down.
A significant voice in that citizen opposition to SOPA and PIPA was a fellow named Aaron Swartz. Aaron was a prodigious young computer programmer and an activist dedicated to the fight for free and open access to information and knowledge on the Internet.
If you’ve ever attached a Creative Commons license to a research article, book, blog (mine!), or media production, Aaron’s contribution was there. If you’ve ever subscribed to a blog or received webpage updates using RSS, Aaron’s contribution was there. If you’ve ever visited Internet Archive, Open Library, or Wikipedia (as an editor), Aaron’s contribution was there, too.
Tragically, Aaron was found dead in his apartment on the morning of January 11, 2013, apparently the result of suicide. He was 26 years old.
This is a terrible and sorrowful loss. But resisting the temptation to engage in speculation or offer analysis, I found the most fitting tribute to Aaron Swartz on this anniversary of the defeat of SOPA and PIPA was simply to take 23 minutes to watch the keynote address he gave at the F2C: Freedom to Connect conference held in Washington, DC on May 21-22, 2012. In the speech, Aaron tells a story about how it was ordinary people, not a big company like Google, that won this round in the fight “to save this crucial freedom.” Open access depends upon an open Internet. Let’s not take that freedom for granted.