An Internet Hero?

The ‘gifted’ internet programmer Aaron Swartz, committed suicide on the January 11 in his New York flat, after he was sentenced 35 years of prison and $1 million fine in 2011. Swartz was one of the founders of the popular website, Reddit but, among many illegal things he did, he also stole 4.1 million PDF documents from JSTOR and made them freely available for all. The American media debate is whether he was a martyr of ‘internet generation’ or just a struggling and rebellious young genius.

On his funeral, young Americans expressed their grief and their support towards his work and the principle of free online access. He believed that all internet content should be available for everyone, and aimed to enable American students to get access to millions of scientific studies without paying anything for them. Many of the American ‘internet generation’, who found this a revolutionary idea, sought to promote the free flow of intellectual property. They claim that Swartz dared to do something that everyone was thinking of doing, and something that was already going on for a long time. Swartz became an internet hero, with numerous blogs and websites tribute his work.

On the other hand, many are sceptical about the Swartz case. A couple of internet forums even questions his cause of death. The argument on the opposite side claims that he was indeed a ‘gifted’ young man in the context of internet development, but the history of his career suggest a certain lack of judgement and no respect for right of property. American news channels and news portals seem to support this sceptical attitude.

The difference between the approaches of the two generations on moral questions is the real debate in this case. The ‘internet-generation’ of the last 10 years continuously claims its right to the free flow of information, music and films online. It is generally not a moral question for students who download and share,; they see it as their right. Many would say ‘I still buy books and CDs, but I use the internet for what it was created for.’ This generation sees Swartz as the guy who took the next step and supported the principles of millions of students all over the world. Then he was sentenced to 35 years of prison and then in half a year he committed sui cide. It feels like a romantic tragedy.

The older generation sees a rebellious attitude and lack of standards in hackers, maybe even in students in general. They argue that intellectual property is just as much the property of anyone as material property. This is essentially true and just. Scholarly articles mean years of research and knowledge gained through expensive education. Many believe that such articles have a value that is not recognised by hackers. This seems to be a misinterpretation; the difference really relies on the way of expressing appreciation for such intellectual products. Swartz believed that the scholarly articles are essential for students, even if their university does not allow access for them; therefore they should be free. This is not about disrespecting intellectual property, but more about admitting the need for intellectual products.

By Krisztina Főző

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