The Privilege to be a Crusader

15 Jan

I went to bed last in a fitful state, my mind racing with thoughts of several online discussions I’d taken part in during the day. I also thought that if there was ever a time for me to heed Clay Johnson’s words from The Information Diet, it was then. I felt sick, as if I’d eaten one too many pieces of chocolate cake. Aaron Swartz, Lance Armstrong, and the flu shot were the sources of my calories.

The death of Aaron Swartz is a tragedy, there is no dispute. As Kevin Poulson of Wired Magazine said to Margaret Warner during an interview on PBS NewsHour, “If he had done nothing but co-invent RSS when he was a teenager, that alone would be an achievement to assure some sort of place in Internet history. But then he went on to do one thing after another.” It was, sadly, one of those other things that led to repercussions that many now claim caused him to take his own life. As most know by now, Swartz was pursued vehemently (many will conclude, unfairly) and ultimately charged with breaking a number of federal laws for hacking into MIT’s network and downloading thousands of full-text articles provided to MIT via their paid subscription to JSTOR.

There is a lot to this story, more than I am qualified or prepared to go into on this post. However, the one point I do want to make relates to the notion expressed by numerous sources as they praise Swartz for his activism:

  • “You know, it’s not accurate to say that he hacked into it. This was a database that was available on MIT’s campus for free to any students there, because MIT paid the subscription cost. So what he did is he went onto the campus and he used their network there, their public network initially, to automatically access the database, the same way you could do manually legally, and download one article right after another in rapid succession.” – Kevin Poulson
  • Comparing Swartz’s actions to those of HSBC, and most importantly the Governments actions towards both as they addressed the crimes, James Allworth writes, “Lay those two cases down beside that of a 26-year old kid who did the online equivalent of checking out too many books out of the library. “
  • “MIT deliberately operates an ‘extraordinarily open network’ with few controls to prevent abuse. Any visitor can register, and it’s easy to bypass the controls that do exist by assigning yourself an IP address. There are no terms of use or definition of abusive practices. And when Swartz downloaded the JSTOR articles, ‘the JSTOR website allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody’ on MIT’s network.” – Alex Stamos, expert witness for Swartz, in recent blog post

The issue I take with each of these statements is the notion behind them that the end justifies the means. He didn’t really “hack” into the network because (a) his methods weren’t all that complicated and (b) because the network was public. MIT promotes an open atmosphere of sharing. And downloading a bunch of articles is just like borrowing too many books and not returning them on time. In other words, none of it was a big deal.

Swartz didn’t believe that information should be trapped behind walls. He lobbied for a free and open Internet. He was an extremely important person in this movement. He brought to the public a wealth of information, particularly information that was in the public domain and should have been easily accessible, through his work in several ventures. It was good work and it will be missed by us all, whether we realize it or not.

However, the glossing over of a few aspects of the allegations (and they remain allegations) troubles me. Swartz was not a student at MIT. Universities, and more importantly libraries, pay substantial subscription prices to make the full content of scholarly journals available to their students, faculty, staff, researchers, etc. One can argue that anyone who believes scholarly articles are worth much monetarily are nuts (as Larry Lessig does well here), but just because Swartz could have never made any money off of the articles he downloaded, something the prosecution errantly believed, this doesn’t mean that they weren’t worth anything. They were, in fact, worth a great deal. The MIT library paid no small price for that subscription. It is a line item in their budget. It costs them money that, if they really didn’t have to pay for JSTOR or any other database or online journal, could be used for something else like, say, research support or instruction. Materials that are made available to patrons of a library are not free.

Was the punishment that the prosecutors wanted disproportional to the crime? Absolutely. Without a doubt. But if the charges against Swartz could have been proven in court, if he really did set up his laptop in that network closet and download thousands of articles, then he did break the law and he deserved some sort of punishment. He did not deserve to be bullied, singled-out, or made to be an example to others who might seek to do similar acts. I agree with Lessig, who states in the above-referenced post,

“I am a big supporter of changing the law. As my repeated injunctions against illegal file sharing attest, however, I am not a believer in breaking bad laws. I am not even convinced that laws that protect entities like JSTOR are bad. And even if sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate, even then the disobedient disobeys the law and accepts the punishment.”

Which brings me to the second helping of chocolate cake that kept me tossing and turning, Lance Armstrong. One might wonder (as I do) why the federal government dropped its case against Armstrong last year. “The government always has a tremendous amount of prosecutorial discretion regarding whether or not to bring an indictment. In this case it appears that they have acted judiciously and likely considered all of the good works of Lance Armstrong and his foundation” (Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor). Yes, Armstrong has now had his time on Oprah’s couch and supposedly confessed to the years of doping that he engaged in while riding professionally. I don’t care. I am an avid cycling fan. I absolutely LOVE the Tour de France. I am in awe of the feats that cyclists can accomplish, blood doped or not. I couldn’t even walk up Alpe d’Huez, let alone ride a bicycle to the top of it. As I listened to Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s book, “The Secret Race“, over the weekend, I felt sorry for everyone involved. For the most part, Armstrong EXcluded, the individuals in the story seemed like nice guys who got caught up in something bigger than themselves. They wanted to win and the only way to do that was to cheat.

But there you have it. Another means to an end. Justification, perhaps, but not an excuse. There were rules in place and the cyclists chose to break them. Some got caught and others didn’t. That’s not fair. None of it is fair. Exorbitant journal prices are not fair. Allowing some people an advantage, whether it be through wealthy schools that can afford large subscription fees or wealthy cyclists who can afford to stay one step ahead of the testers, is unfair. Armstrong claims, via Hamilton (and perhaps even admits it to Oprah), that he didn’t cheat because everyone was cheating. If everyone is breaking the rules, then the rules no longer apply. That’s the logic. Personally, I think it’s anarchy.

What bothers me most about both Armstrong and Swartz, is that neither of them ever appeared to accept the consequences of their actions. Armstrong lied ad nauseum over the years and it is only now, when he is retired, when his charity is facing huge losses, when his image is tarnished, when his millions in sponsorships are drying up, when he can no longer win over (or bully) his former teammates into saying what he wants them to say… only then does he go to the Queen of Confessions herself to share his sad story and ask our forgiveness. Maybe. But when one is forced into the place of admission and apology, what’s the point? Can it even possibly be sincere?

Aaron Swartz hung himself. This is sad beyond sad. Anyone who has lived with depression or knows someone suffering from it, you know that the depths of despair that must come at the moment of suicide are unbearable. It is the unbearableness that leads to the choice of ending one’s life. It is a horrible, horrible thought – a horrible thing. The federal government, MIT, and others involved in the case, bear some responsibility for Swartz’s death, but so does he.

The ends justify the means only when one takes responsibility for those means in the first place. Rules and laws can need changing, but we need to be accountable for the means by which we bring about the change. The fact that no one in either of these cases (I am referencing all sides) seems to want to take any responsibility for his or her or their actions – that’s what bothers me the most.

And finally, the flu shot. I did not get one. I talked with my doctor about whether or not I needed a shot during my last check-up, in November. I am healthy and I don’t live or work with a vulnerable population. My chances of getting the flu may be higher this year, if there really is an epidemic happening, but if I do get it, I can sequester myself, stay in bed, ride it out, and in a couple of weeks, be fine. It isn’t that I want to get sick. Who wants to get sick? But sickness – germs and viruses and bacteria – is a part of life. I’ve had influenza twice in my lifetime. Twice in 50 years. I’ve had more cavities than that, despite fluoride in my water, regular dental visits, and pretty good oral hygiene practices.

I posed the question, “Who do you listen to more for health advice, your health insurance company or your doctor?” on my Facebook page yesterday. I posed it in the context of the flu shot – I received an email from my insurer telling me to get a shot, despite the fact that I’d had an intelligent, thoughtful discussion with my doctor and, based upon it, made a decision. In a nutshell, I was hung out to dry. Horror stories of individuals’ experiences with the flu were shared, layers of guilt over how I was going to make others sick were applied, pleas were made for me to use my good sense. So I shared an abstract  from the Cochrane Systematic Review on the effectiveness of flu shots for preventing the flu in healthy adults (modest), thinking that by at least providing some evidence for my beliefs and actions, my many colleagues who teach (and preach) the importance of evidence-based decision-making would pause. Nope. Didn’t matter. The episode marked the trifecta of things not making any sense to me for the day. I called it quits and turned out the lights.

What do any of these stories have to do with my role as an informationist? Specifically, nothing, but generally, I think each one is a clear indication of the ways in which the distribution and management of information effect us all. We try to control it, manipulate it, commodify it, and use it to prove or disprove our beliefs. We can twist it or ignore it or accept only the parts of it that we agree with. It is, in many ways, a free-for-all.

The discussion at the end of this morning’s team meeting centered around the question(s) of what kind, if any, conclusions the research to date might be giving. It is a multi-year study and the final results won’t be available for several years, but is there anything there now that’s of value to a larger audience? Is there anything new? Depending upon how the question is framed and the data presented, there may be. It’s something to look into (and off I went with a couple more lit searches to do). But the point is that with so much information available to us, integrity becomes so much more important. Taking responsibility for the actions that we take, the questions that we ask, and the conclusions that we draw around information may be more important now than they have ever been. Those of us working in the field not excepted.

8 Responses to “The Privilege to be a Crusader”

  1. Ed Donnald January 16, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Great post! Thanks.

  2. Jeannine Gluck January 16, 2013 at 9:19 am #

    Sally, you work in a hospital. If all your colleagues decide to take the same course of action, patients would be at far higher risk of contracting the flu while in the hospital. That’s why, in most hospitals, at least around here, the flu shot is mandatory for all personnel. Non-compliance means either wearing a mask during all working hours, or being fired. It’s a good rule.

    • salgore January 16, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      Actually, Jeannine, I do not work in a hospital. I work in a medical school. We are not a clinical location. We ARE a public location, but that’s a different matter. UMass hospitals do have requirements for employees who have direct contact with patients and those who visit the clinical areas and have not been vaccinated must wear a mask. I certainly would.

      I make my decision based upon the evidence available, who funds the studies, the number of people in the US who get the shot (last reported by CDC, approximately 35% of adults), discussions with my doctor, and every other route that we teach students, clinicians, researchers, and patients to follow when we are teaching them good practice for information literacy. I stand by my decision.

  3. salgore January 16, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    [Posting the following from Myrna Morales. Something is up with her WordPress password.]

    Sally,
    I also always appreciate your willingness to put your perspective out there as it always makes me think. That said, I disagree with your position on Swartz. I think people of privilege are one of the few ppl who can break bad laws and should. Slavery was a bad law and that law needed to be broken. The white folks who broke the law did so regardless of consequence. Conceding or pleading guilty validates the law, an unjust one. Swartz broke a bad law bc of te greater good, unlike Armstrong who broke the law for his greater good.
    Like you said, I am not an authority on both the situation u name, However I think Swartz understood the implications, since he had everyone and their fathers in the state coming after him. To plea guilty meant that he agreed with the law.
    The situation is bad and as a publisher told me when we discussed the situation, Aaron Swartz is the canary in the mine.
    Thank you Sally, you always manage to force me out of my head and on the keyboard.

    • salgore January 16, 2013 at 11:59 am #

      Thanks, Myrna. I always appreciate our thought-uprisings, too.

      I agree with you that those of us of privilege (and I include myself there, for sure), are called upon to bring about change. I also certainly agree that doing so, at times, calls for breaking the law. And when we do so, we need to accept the consequences of that. I may well have missed Aaron’s explanations for why he did what he did – at least his own accounts of such. I’ve read lots of second-hand explanations. I think I’d rather people state clearly that they did break a law because they believe it is a law worth changing. Maybe it’s our legal system that makes such clear statements impossible, but to plea “not guilty”, to me (completely my own opinion) is a bit of a cop out.

      • Myrna E. Morales (@SeerGenius) January 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

        Sally,
        I think it would be a cop out if all he did was expected was to plea not guilty and move on, leaving libraries and authors to clean up after his mess. I would argue that this wasn’t the case. http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/aaron-swartzs-politics.html

      • salgore January 16, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

        That’s a great post! Thanks for sharing.

        I absolutely DON”T believe a person should plea not guilty and move on. That’s not what I’m saying at all. What I’d like to see is people say, “Yes, I am guilty of breaking that law and this is why…” I understand that legally they plea not guilty in order to get a trial and explain further, but now, sadly, we will not get that in this case, because Aaron is gone.

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