Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz Credit: Fred Benenson

In another life, and in other worlds, Northwestern University philosophy professor Peter Ludlow—aka Urizenus Sklar—was a fearless journalist, reporting on crime and official corruption and letting the chips fall where they may.

Those were the virtual worlds of the Sims Online and Second Life, where Ludlow created newspapers that exposed the ugly underside of those alternative environments. When the Sims’ owner, Electronic Arts Inc., banned Ludlow from its site, effectively killing off his avatar, it caught the attention of newspapers in this world, including the New York Times. The book he subsequently coauthored about his virtual-world experiences, The Second Life Herald, was published by MIT press in 2007.

Last month, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ludlow came to the defense of a real-world citizen as astounding as any virtual-world hero he might have dreamed up. In an essay headlined “Aaron Swartz Was Right,” he argued that the Highland Park native and Internet prodigy—who killed himself in January, a few months before he was to go on trial in federal court—was fully justified in doing what he was charged with. That is, surreptitiously hooking a laptop up to MIT’s computer system and downloading millions of pages of academic journal articles from the online library JSTOR.

Since his suicide we’ve been inundated with reporting about the charismatic Swartz, who, having taught himself to read at the age of three, helped develop RSS technology at 14, was recruited to build Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons licensing system before 15, and codeveloped Reddit before 20. After Reddit was sold to Conde Nast in 2006 and made him wealthy, he continued to live like a pauper, but focused his efforts more specifically on big-picture projects that would make the world a better place. In 2008, for example, Swartz drew the interest of the FBI by downloading and “liberating” 19 million pages of federal court records during a free trial period of the government’s PACER system.

He was also an eccentric: an elfin, shy, hypersensitive, secretive, and unpredictable high school and college dropout, famous among friends (who might not know that he suffered from ulcerative colitis) for subsisting largely on a diet of macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Although JSTOR resolved the matter with Swartz and began making its holdings available to the public without charge, MIT and the feds persisted in pursuing the case, ratcheting up the stakes. When Swartz hanged himself, he was awaiting trial on 13 felony counts and facing a maximum 35-year prison sentence. A plea bargain would have forced him to admit guilt to a felony.

While there’s been public outcry about Swartz’s case, it’s mostly centered on overly broad laws and ambitious prosecutors seeking disproportionate penalties. On the question of culpability, Ludlow notes, “the consensus so far has been that Swartz did something wrong.”

That’s certainly the view held by Swartz’s longtime mentor and friend Lessig, who posted these remarks two days after Swartz’s death: “If what the government alleged was true . . . then what he did was wrong. And if not legally wrong, then at least morally wrong.”

Ludlow couldn’t disagree more.

Swartz “did something illegal,” he said on the phone last week, “as did Rosa Parks when she sat in the front of the bus, and as did Gandhi when he went to the ocean to make salt.

“An act of civil disobedience by definition involves breaking the law, but it’s a law that’s unjust,” Ludlow said. “You’re flouting it in order to make a public statement and to bring about change.”

Which brings us to the issue Swartz was apparently attempting to address when he downloaded all those articles from JSTOR: the bizarre arrangement that allows corporations to tie up publicly funded academic research and make a profit by charging universities and everyone else fat fees for access to it. This, Ludlow charges, “functionally amounts to an extortion racket.”

In the days when researchers were writing on pieces of paper, publishers provided a valuable service, Ludlow says. “They would typeset, oversee the vetting and editing process, get it in a readable form, and provide the channels of distribution.

“Now, when authors are submitting camera-ready copy, we don’t need that service from them.”

And copyrights held by the publishers? Void them, he argues. “Pool resources, get some lawyers, and go after them. They are what I would call a contract of adhesion. Which is a contract between parties of unequal bargaining power.

“If you’re a junior scholar who desperately needs to get this thing published in order to even have a career, it’s an incredibly unfair bargaining position.”

But, Ludlow says, academics have largely themselves to blame. “They persist in publishing in journals owned by these corporations when they could just publish in online open-access journals [where articles would still be vetted]. If everyone would just get up and walk away at once, it would be the optimal situation.”

He notes that a bill before Congress now, called Aaron’s Law, could correct some of the problems with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, under which Swartz was charged.

Ludlow’s essay contends that Swartz’s “act of hacktivism was an
act of resistance to a corrupt system.”

“To put it bluntly,” he writes, “the current state of academic publishing is the result of a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge.”

As for the government’s case, “Would you say Rosa Parks should have done some time for sitting in the front of the bus?”

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect that Aaron’s Law could correct some of the problems with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.