Aaron Swartz, Free Access to Knowledge and Free Public Libraries

The suicide of Aaron Swartz made me focus on what he’d been fighting for – free access to knowledge on the internet. Swartz’s methods were misguided and illegal but his purposes are nevertheless worth thinking about. He was part of a movement devoted to giving us all free access to government documents, research papers and much else, believing that it should all be available on the internet at no charge.

He, and the many who agreed with him ran into the pay per use mantra of capitalism. If you want it, you have to pay for it. And if you are a government or private agency providing the information, you have to cover your costs through user fees.

Swartz was being prosecuted for making one large database available on the internet which had previously been behind a pay wall.

Was Swartz really so revolutionary? Britain passed the Public Libraries Act in 1850, laying the foundation for the modern system of unconditionally free public libraries in the U.K. In the U.S. the public library movement took off earlier. Travel and look up at the buildings and you might notice that many of them have the worked “free” carved into the stone or concrete. Free was a principle, that knowledge belonged to the people, that knowledge would make us free, that knowledge and information are a public resource, one that merits the support of the public – all of us, for all of us, regardless of whether at the moment of need, some of us don’t have the funds to pay. More than that, free invited people in – even those who could spend for the knowledge might be more attracted to taste the fruits if they were free. Andrew Carnegie built nearly three thousand libraries around the growing country at the turn of the 20th century. He believed that knowledge was central to a democratic society, and as the storehouse and distributor, libraries should be free, public, accessible and ample.

It’s some two decades since Robert Reich wrote the “Secession of the Successful,” in the Sunday Times Magazine. His point was that the wealthy had withdrawn from supporting the public goods we had grown up with, the resources that made ours a vibrant society in a livable world. They had withdrawn from parks and public swimming pools to “private health clubs, golf clubs, tennis clubs, skating clubs and every other type of recreational association”, from public streets to gated communities, from public schools to costly academies, and were no longer willing to share the resources once gladly given to libraries, schools and other public amenities. Reich noted, ominously, that there were now more private security guards than public police in the U.S., a pattern, I would add, more typical of poor and poorly governed countries. The fortunate elite, he wrote, “have pooled their resources to the exclusive benefit of themselves.” They were segregating themselves behind barrier walls, walls that separated them from other Americans, each to live in their own sthtetls, the poor, immigrant, African, and other quarters and the walled city of the royals on the hill, or more precisely in tony suburbs. We had lost the sense of sharing a public space, of the importance of the public, demeaned the public and eviscerated it, unless it was a carefully defined and segregated public we called ours.

Free access to knowledge has been a casualty. But we will all pay the price.

—  This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2013.

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