Thoughts on The Internet’s Own Boy

I just finished watching The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Schwartz (2014) [1] and it raised a lot of questions, thoughts, fears in me.

There is a conflict between the safeguarding of intellectual property and ideas and the movement towards open access and shared knowledge. There is also a conflict of interest between corporations and businesses, who use data to make money and keep the economy going, and private individuals, who use data for their personal education in order to become a player in the economic game. When Lawrence Lessig said that what Aaron did at MIT with the Jstor files was not committing a crime and did not harm anyone (47:00), I think he took a naive stance towards internet piracy. Aaron’s motifs might have been noble and he surely wanted the best for society, but hacking himself into Jstor and downloading millions of articles is probably not the way to get open access to intellectual property. Even after Jstor stopped pressing charges, the government could not stop prosecution as they had to make an example out of the case.

What happened as the consequence of his actions was tragic and the outdated legal system aggravated the consequences and made the tragedy possible. However, it also shows that if we want an Open Science agenda and open access to knowledge, going against the big corporations and stealing their data might not be the right way.

I think there are several things that prevent progression in terms of Open Science and open access. Firstly, there are outdated laws and congressmen and women (or legislators in countries all over the world) who do not have enough knowledge to understand what is going on. This got evident in the congress’ hearing of Mark Zuckerberg, where the main topic seemed to be how the internet actually works, not what Facebook does with its user’s data. There is huge discrepancy between the legislators’ ideas of how the internet is used and the reality of its usage and rapid development.

Another problem is the vested interests of commercial businesses in the internet and in getting as big a piece as possible of the cake. Science is where money is, and making it publicly accessible threatens influential economic players.

Not only businesses, but also educational institutions have great interest in stopping the Open Science movement, although this might seem counterintuitive. Especially in America, where tuition fees are extraordinarily high, academic knowledge is weighed in gold and an existential foundation of these institutions. The fact that MIT did nothing to protect or help Aaron shows, that they are not willing to support open access to scientific knowledge.

The problem addressed by the movie is that taxpayer-funded research is being monetized by publishing firms that lock knowledge behind paywalls and thus create inequality of access to knowledge that should be accessible to everyone. The movie shows the conflict between the right of the publishers to sell their publications and monetize scientific research and the right of the taxpayers to access this information freely.

Although I was aware that internet regulation and law is having a hard time keeping up with the fast-paced online worlds and development, I did not know about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Statute and its implications on internet users. It was scary to realize what power this Act has over everyone using the internet and what the possible implications of unknowingly violating a website’s terms and conditions can be. Once again, I realized that we approach the web way too naively and that we are not aware of possible consequences of our actions online.

From what I’ve read and seen this week, I think that the internet is bound to change dramatically. It is probably not determined yet in which direction, as there are different forces pulling at different ends, but the internet as we know it is in the process of becoming something else – either a place for free knowledge and open access to research and ideas, or a place for ideological propaganda, censorship and a virtual class system. I see an important role for the Digital Humanities to be the voice of the movement toward open access and Open Science and the democratization of the web.

The NYT article on Facebook [2] shows the danger of private companies with huge online influence working with oppressive governments for the sake of financial success. I wonder what is better: no Facebook access at all, or a Facebook edited and censored by an oppressive government. If Facebook, which enables millions of individuals connect, spread their ideas, start and join movements, thinks about developing a tool to enable authoritarian and oppressive regimes to suppress and censor its content, I find that a scary development. It shows that the danger of a suppressive, anti-egalitarian, ideologically biased internet is a real one.


[1] Knappenberger, B. 2014. The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. Participant Media, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vz06QO3UkQ.

[2]

Mozur, P., Scott, M. and Isaac, M. 2018. Facebook Faces a New World as Officials Rein In a Wild Web. The New York Times. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/17/technology/facebook-government-regulations.html [Accessed October 7, 2018].

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Internet’s Own Boy”

  1. Very interesting review of the movie/documentary, Charlotte. I particularly like how you envisage the future of the internet. It is very true when you say “we approach the web way too naively and that we are not aware of possible consequences of our actions online”. I myself try to keep my digital footprint very light, although I know this will not be possible for much longer.

    You have a slight typo here: “no Facebook access at all, or a Faceboob edited and censored by an oppressive government” – I am sure it wasn’t intentional..!

    You might need to change the settings on your comments. The text is white on a light background. I needed to type this in Word and then copy and paste.

    Please check out my review of the movie – I know it’s not perfect and I may have missed quite a bit.

    Paul

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