Though the issue of public access to information has been important for a long time, the advent of the Internet has brought up new challenges to those who wish to maintain freedom of information in the digital age.
Aaron Swartz, who spent his short life at the forefront of such issues, killed himself Jan. 11 at age 26. Swartz was known for his work in creating reddit.com and RSS, a web format that allowed for an updated information feed.
Swartz was a committed proponent of free information and spent the last two years of his life in a legal battle over an incident in which he downloaded 4 million academic documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a site called JSTOR with the intention of making them public.
Swartz would have faced up to 35 years in prison on various charges, including violating JSTOR’s Terms of Agreement.
The case against Swartz was flawed. It was pursued even after JSTOR opposed charges against him, and the 35 years in prison is excessive.
Why such adamancy about pursuing this case and imposing such a harsh sentence?
I’m not exactly sure why, but it seems that his activism might have played a role in the insistence of prosecutors to see that he be punished for his actions.
Freedom of information is often seen as threat for those in power, and the Swartz case can be seen as an instance of people in power trying to oppose activism in this area.
The Internet age is relatively new, and how ideas of freedom can be applied in it are not entirely clear. We can use the example of what Swartz did, and the legal ramifications it wrought, to serve as a guide in this new terrain.
Griffin, a freshman journalism major from Madison, is the opinion editor.