The death by suicide of the brilliant Internet innovator Aaron Swartz is a tragedy for him, his family and for the world of information technology.
In his short life – Swartz was only 26 when he killed himself – he’d already done more than most people will ever do over the course of many decades. And you’ve benefited from his ideas. If you get news through an RSS feed – that accumulation of web feeds featuring blog entries, news headlines and such in a standardized format – then you can thank Swartz for making your access to information that much easier.
And that access to information was what might have lay at the cause of his suicide (coupled with, apparently, severe depression). Swartz was being investigated, rather heavy-handedly, by the government for having used MIT computers to access illegally millions of scholarly papers. The trial, which was to begin in April, might have led to Swartz’s imprisonment for up to 35 years, as well as fines of millions of dollars.
Now, really, this seems to be going a bit far. The threat of up to 35 years in prison? For the possible disclosure of information? (Or for the breach of computer network.) But the government, and universities such as MIT, don’t know yet how to deal with the free flow of information, or with those who insist on it, however illegal their methods might be at this moment in unshackling information. So they rush in, guns blazing.
How much, if anything, to pay for information is one of the most pressing questions in all forms of publishing today, from newspapers to magazines to books. Most newspapers still don’t know how to monetize their content in a new digital age, and the pay wall system doesn’t work for everyone. (It should be said that most publications make their money from advertising, not subscription, unless that publication is entirely subscription-based and free of advertising, like Cook’s Illustrated.)
Now, if you’ve read the posts here on Beneath The Cover, and seen what we’ve written about the benefits of building a platform to spread your ideas and expanding your audience, then you know that we believe in the free flow of information. We advise authors to disseminate their material through their blogs, through newsletters, through sign-ups on their mailing list. The thing is, even if people have bought your material, or have read it for free, they will still want to hear what you have to say, and pay for it in some fashion, whether it’s through attending a seminar or asking you to coach them (I’m speaking here more of nonfiction writing, usually of an entrepreneurial or business kind, rather than fiction).
The looming prosecution of Swartz by the government and, by extension, a financially well-endowed university, is a sign that people fear the spread of information. Governments always do – witness the Wikileaks prosecution – and universities seek to protect what they consider expensive and potentially profitable intellectual property.
We have a right to protect our ideas, of course – though they’re better shared. But we have not yet found an efficient way to profit from them in monetary terms. Nevertheless, in an age of transparency, when people are more interested in the truth than in empty promises, the prosecution of someone who had done so much to enable our current information age is a sign that some people would prefer to suppress the innovations they profit from, rather than figure out a way to benefit from them.